A law firm that raised thousands of dollars for two freshman Baltimore County council members wrote "significant portions" of a bill that could benefit a client seeking to develop a contested Bowleys Quarters marina.
The proposed legislation was introduced last month by Councilman David Marks and had a hearing before the full council on Tuesday. One of its provisions allows for developments to be built in rural areas of the county if any portion of the property has water and sewer service.
In an interview, Marks said the politically-connected firm wrote “significant portions” of the proposed legislation, which also seeks to overturn a portion of an April Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that requires planned unit developments to conform to the county master plan. Such a change would make it easier for developments to move forward.
Marks' acknowledgement of the firm’s involvement highlights access that development attorneys and their clients—who contribute significantly to council campaigns—often have. It's an insider's edge that some community groups say they have always suspected existed and that they themselves would covet.
"I'd like to see the council work with the community in drafting some fixes to these laws," said Alan Robertson, zoning chairman of the Bowleys Quarters Community Association.
The county's Planned Unit Development law is meant to allow for flexibility for mixed-use projects that are accompanied by a community benefit. In return, the county allows the projects to be built even though they run counter to original zoning.
Marks' bill also calls for creating a process for reviewing substantive changes to plans that were previously approved as well as creating public commenting periods and departmental reviews before the council approves the project.
"These are good things," Marks said.
Hours after being asked about Smith, Gildea and Schmidt’s involvement in writing the bill, Marks said he was going to withdraw the legislation.
"I'm looking at some other options but I don't want to discuss them," Marks said late Wednesday night.
Marks acknowledged his bill affected the Bowleys Quarters project. Last year an administrative law judge had sided with community opponents to the development and ruled that the project could not move forward. The county’s Board of Appeals on Tuesday voted to overturn the administrative law judge's decision.
The project is in the 6th Council District, which is represented by Councilwoman Cathy Bevins—who is not a co-sponsor on the bill.
"The timing was important," Marks said. "We didn't want to put the bill in while (the Board of Appeals) was deliberating but we also didn't want to wait too long because of the rezoning process."
He did not explain why he was sponsoring legislation on a project outside his district.
"All I can say is every council member had an opportunity to sign on to the bill," Marks said.
No one except Councilman Ken Oliver spoke in opposition to the bill during a hearing Tuesday.
Robertson said he was not even aware that the bill had been introduced.
"The bill was available on the county website for over a month," said Marks. He later said attorneys who drafted the bill had been in discussions with him for "three or four months before the bill was introduced."
Attorneys Wrote "Substantial Portion"
Marks initially declined to talk about the involvement of the law firm, saying only that he had consulted with "home builders" about the law.
He later acknowledged that the firm "wrote a subtantial portion" of the proposed bill but then declined to elaborate on which parts.
"I won't say," Marks said.
Ultimately, the councilman did acknowledge that the firm provided language for nearly all of the bill with the exception of amendments meant to increase community input and adding regulations to how changes to previously approved plans would be handled.
Marks, a former president of the Perry Hall Improvement Association, said he did not believe that community associations would look down on him for the law firm's involvement.
"I think people will look at the overall picture, the reforms made by the County Council and see that we made substantial improvements to the process," Marks said.
Bill Guts Challenge To Plan
Carroll Holzer, a Towson-based attorney representing the Bowleys Quarters Community Association's challenge to the condominium plan said the proposed legislation, if enacted, would end any possible appeal of the Board of Appeals’ Tuesday decision.
"It's a double-barreled effort to block communities out of the process," Holzer said.
"To me, it's not a good bill," Holzer said. "I'm very confused about why (Marks) is doing this for a project that is not in his district."
Holzer said he was disappointed but not surprised by the news that lawyers representing the project his clients oppose had a hand in writing the bill.
"Over the years, there have been development attorneys drafting bills for various councilmen," Holzer said. "There's always been lobbying but in this particular case, it seems more aggressive because (Smith, Gildea and Schmidt) literally drafted the law and handed it to a councilman to put it in while there was an ongoing case."
Connected Law Firm
The revelation that the Smith, Gildea and Schmidt was involved in writing the bill is the latest chapter in the story of the politically connected law firm.
In 2010, David Gildea and Michael Paul Smith were criticized for raising tens of thousands of dollars to help elect Cathy Bevins and Tom Quirk to the County Council. The two also raised funds for Gordon Harden, who lost in his bid for council.
Smith is the son of former County Executive Jim Smith. Gildea served as a law clerk to Jim Smith during his time as a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge.
Michael Paul Smith joined Gildea's law firm last year after his father left office.
Jim Smith also works for the firm. In 2010, Jim Smith campaigned door-to-door for both Bevins and Quirk. He also transfered $129,000 in cash from his own campaign to Bevins, Quirk and another Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for the council.
Attorney Involvement 'Not Unusual'
Community activists like Robertson and Donna Spicer, a Loch Raven resident, have long suspected the involvement of law firms representing developers when it comes to shaping development law.
"I've never had an direct proof of it but there was little doubt it happens,"Spicer said.
Still, Spicer said it was hard to criticize development lawyers for "having an open line to the council when I have one too."
Spicer said she frequently emails and calls councilmembers with her thoughts on various development bills but acknowledged that she's never been asked to draft a bill at the county level.
Robertson said he also had never been asked.
"The last time they asked will be the first time they ask because it's never happened before," Robertson said.
Councilman Ken Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat, agreed.
"It's not unusual for an attorney to draw up a bill you and he have discussed and mutually agree upon and then for the council member to introduce that bill," Oliver said. "What is unusual to me is that (Marks) introduced a bill for a project that is in another district and the councilmember who represents that district didn't sign off on it."
Oliver was the only member of the council to speak out against a portion of Marks' bill during a hearing Tuesday.
"It's a good bill but I am concerned about the part that allows a PUD (in rural areas)," Oliver said. "We've never done that."
Oliver said he has introduced bills that were drafted with the assistance of development attorneys.
One example of that was a bill that would have exempted the Metro Centre at Owings Mills project from most major development regulations.
The bill was drafted with the assistance of lawyers at Venable including Robert Hoffman and David Karceski, according to Oliver.
Hoffman did not return a call from a reporter seeking comment.
Oliver withdrew the bill before a scheduled May 24 vote but said he planned on reintroducing the bill in June.
Marks Announces Withdrawal then Reverses Course
Several hours after being questioned about the involvement of Smith, Gildea and Schmidt, Marks said he was withdrawing the bill. He said he hoped to re-file the bill Monday night—minus the provisions affecting the Bowleys Quarters project.
But late Wednesday night, Marks said that withdrawing the bill might not be a possibility.
"Even if I took my name off it, Tom Quirk is a co-sponsor and could move forward with the bill," Marks said.