Activist's Contacts Subpoenaed

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Montgomery County's planning agency is trying to compel community activist Steven J. Kanstoroom to reveal contacts with government investigators and the news media in a Sandy Spring land dispute involving descendants of freed slaves.

The unusual request was made in a subpoena from the planning agency in a lawsuit brought by a landowner who claims difficulties in gaining access to a public road and obtaining an address, both necessary to develop the land. The agency's action has sparked questions from a media organization and the American Civil Liberties Union, who say it could discourage anyone questioning government actions.

John J. Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said the planning agency appears to be trying to "shut people up by lawyering them to death or scaring them for trying to help these folks who may have lost access to their property." Murphy is a former executive editor of Gazette Newspapers, a Washington Post company.

Art Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union - National Capital Area, said the subpoena "raises questions in my mind about what is their legitimate purpose."

The planning agency asked Kanstoroom in the subpoena and during a deposition Monday to discuss information he either gave to or received from the county's independent inspector general, Thomas J. Dagley, who has been probing land-use issues in the county; County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and staffer Adrienne Gude, who have tried to help some Sandy Spring residents; the Maryland Department of Planning; and federal agencies.

The agency's attorneys also subpoenaed information about Kanstoroom's media contacts in the Sandy Spring case and three other land disputes, listing such news organizations as The Washington Post, Gazette Newspapers and the Baltimore Sun. Reporters have not been subpoenaed.

David Lieb, a planning agency attorney, said obtaining access to Kanstoroom's contacts and information is necessary if the agency is to defend itself in the lawsuit. "We don't think there is a legitimate basis for the lawsuit against us," he said. "In light of how much interaction he has had with the press, it would be really irresponsible to foreclose that as an area of inquiry. He has been taking runs at various agencies, trying to get folks to put pressure on this agency to do what we have said is not appropriate for us to do."

Many reporters and news organizations are reluctant to provide information about their news-gathering practices, saying it could impede their ability to gather information. Maryland has a shield law that offers some protections to reporters in civil and criminal cases who are trying to shield their sources, but it does not extend the same protection to the sources.

Kanstoroom has been challenging local officials for several years and recently said he would seek a County Council seat.

He first came to local prominence when he helped victims of Hurricane Isabel receive insurance payments. Recently, he has raised questions about illegal dumping on a Pepco right-of-way near his Ashton home and the Patuxent River, about illegal tree-cutting on a neighbor's property and about a consultant who has at times represented himself as an engineer in filings with the planning agency, despite being unlicensed in Maryland.

The Sandy Spring case involves one landowner but could affect at least seven others, many of them part of a historic African American community, who claim problems gaining access to a public road and who lack formal addresses. The defendant in the Sandy Spring case says residents have driven trucks over what she says is her property, causing her to block access, according to a letter from the planning agency to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

Kanstoroom's connection to the Sandy Spring case grew partly out of his interest in blocking a development near his home. He has said that an engineering firm proposed placing houses on a private easement buffering his home without acknowledging that the easement exists and that he was unable to get the planning agency to intervene. Officials said it was not their role but that of the courts to enforce private agreements.

The Sandy Spring lawsuit is "a neighbor-versus-neighbor dispute," said Valerie Berton, a planning agency spokeswoman. "Our agency is tangential to the dispute."

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