A new bill from County Council member Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1) would establish a Community Zoning and Land Use Resource Office, changing an established but currently unfunded land use attorney position called the Office of the People’s Counsel.
The Office of the People’s Counsel provides a county-funded attorney to represent constituents in land use decisions, but it hasn’t been funded since 2010.
However, the topic came up again last year when County Executive March Elrich proposed funding it in his budget. But the County Council rejected funding the position.
The legislation would keep the office under a new name but would not require it to be run by an attorney. Instead, it would be run by a land use expert who could help residents understand what’s going on in zoning and land use decisions.
At a recent public hearing, more speakers shared concerns about the bill than support.
Cheryl Gannon, a Silver Spring resident, said she believes it’s unfair that county offices have land use lawyers and residents would have to pay for their own.
“Wealthier neighborhoods and HOAs can raise the money for a lawyer when needed, and they do so. Ordinary citizens, particularly if they are not wealthy, are the only parties without any help,” Gannon said.
Friedson said in an interview that he proposed this legislation to still give residents a land use resource in absence of an attorney.
“This would provide a more objective standard to allow for residents to have help and support in understanding the land use process,” Friedson said.
This person would not be advocating for or against certain positions or parties like the People’s Counsel would but would rather be a resource for constituents to engage in the land use process.
“Land use is an extremely complicated process; it is very difficult to understand even for experts. It is unreasonable to expect everyday residents to understand it enough to engage without resources,” Friedson said.
Elrich isn’t convinced. During a press briefing last month, he said he thinks eliminating the Office of the People’s Counsel is a “step back.”
“The whole point of a People’s Counsel wasn’t to make people’s cases for them, but to support the community when the average person in the community doesn’t understand zoning, doesn’t understand a whole myriad of things in the planning environment,” Elrich said.
A 2008 report from the Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) laid out the pros and cons of the Office of the People’s Counsel. Supporters and opponents of the bill have used the findings of this report to defend their arguments.
The OLO recommended at the time that the county revisit the purpose, duties and structure of the Office of the People’s Counsel and determine whether the office still aligned with county and council priorities.
According to the OLO report, the People’s Counsel is authorized to participate as a party, at their discretion, in some types of land use cases and can make motions, introduce evidence, call witnesses, cross-examine witnesses, and make arguments in these cases. In practice, the People’s Counsel primarily participates in special exception and local map amendment cases.
The People’s Counsel also is authorized by law to provide technical assistance to residents providing general information on land use topics and guidance on effective participation in the County’s land use process. The People’s Counsel’s activities also include mediating land use disputes and participating in Community Liaison Committees.
Baltimore County, Harford County, Howard County and Prince George’s County have similar offices, but the Montgomery County People’s Counsel spent more time providing technical assistance than the other counties, according to the 2008 OLO report.
In addition, Montgomery County is the only jurisdiction to fill the position with a term merit system employee, while the others either use contract or non-merit employees.
Under Friedson’s bill, the officer would not be an interested party or mediator, but serve as an objective and independent expert resource, he said.
But during the public hearing last month, residents still voiced mixed views on the idea.
“The [People’s Counsel’s] purpose is to protect the public interest, to promote full and fair administrative proceedings, and to produce sound land use decisions. It also helps level the playing field between developers and ordinary residents,” said Elizabeth Joyce of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.
One supporter of the bill said establishing the Community Zoning and Land Use Resource Office is a “more equitable alternative” to the Office of the People’s Counsel.
“Without guardrails, an Office of the People’s Counsel can quickly turn into a free lawyer for neighbors who oppose development in their neighborhood,” said Jane Lyons-Raeder, principal planner with the city of Rockville and a downtown Silver Spring resident. “[The proposed new office] still allows for an independent source of information about the development process, but doesn’t allow for free legal representation.”
The bill will be discussed in a Planning, Housing and Parks committee meeting but has not been scheduled for a discussion yet. There is no vote scheduled yet.