A retinue of consultants equipped with graphs, maps, diagrams and charts arrives to testify at the Montgomery County office building. The consultants -- traffic engineers, planners, air quality experts -- are there to convince a hearing examiner that a particular piece of land can support higher density development without harming the neighborhood.
Coodinating the presentation, like a Broadway director, is a member of the Silver Spring law firm of Linowes and Blocher.He has chosen the consultants and paid them and now he stands by, ready to prompt his cast to emphaize a point or respond to an objection.
It is an impressive performance, and the result is almost always the same: The client, usually a developer, gets his zoning change, and another new development in the county is under way.
"Inowes and Blocher," says Marilyn Piety, a civic activist from Silver Spring who has often opposed the firm," always seems to get what it wants."
During the past 15 years, lawyers from the firm have brought hundreds of rezoning petitions to the county and have won more than 90 percent of them. In the process they have helped reshape the face of Montgomery County. Their clients have included the developers of Montgomery Mall, Wheaton Plaza, Old Georgetown Village and many of Rockville's town houses and high-rises.
To help individual clients, the firm has drawn up wide ranging amendments to the zoning code that over the years have helped define how the county would grow.
As a result of its amendments, for example, funeral parlors can be built in residential areas, light industry has sprung up throughout the county, Bethesda, Friendship Heights and Silver Spring have developed large business districts and town houses have been built within a few hundred yards of large single-family homes.
Although Linowes and Blocher is, the major land use firm in Montgomery County, the role it plays is not unique in the Washington area. In every jurisdiction in the suburbs, there is a lawyer or firm that plays a key role in development issues.
In Arlington, it is Barnes Lawson. In Fairfax, it is John (Till) Hazel. In Prince George's there are two firms that until recently were one: Shipley and Zanecki, and Knight, Manzi and Southoron.
The firms were established in the 1950s and 1960s, a period of rapid suburban growth when developers built shopping centers and housing developments as fast as they could find the land. In those days developers needed lawyers just to make sure their applications did not get lost in the crush. Now, at a time when antigrowth feeling is rampant, they are needed to guide projects through a host of complicated regulations.
R. Robert Linowes, 58, began representing developers in 1956 after serving as an assistant county attorney in Montgomery who often defended the county's zoning decisions. In 1956, he and Joseph Blocher, 56 another former assistant county attorney, founded the firm.
Today, there are 27 lawyers in Linowes and Blocher, all of them partners. in Silver Spring, one block away from the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, or in the District of Columbia.
Members of the firm see nothing wrong with the influence the firm experts. But they are aware of the often hostie feelings they engender in some county residents.
"We have spawned more citizens associations and civic activistis than any other industry," laughs John Delaney, one of the firm's lawyers.
As a progrowth, prodevelopment force, Linowes and Blocher's principal foes are the civic associations seeking to maintain their neighborhoods and the low-density character of the county. They represent residents who moved to the suburbs looking for peace and quiet, fresh air and uncrowded streets. To them, new apartment complexes, shopping centers and office parks mean that their way of life is being undermined.
"People get hypersensitive about living near office buildings when they moved to the suburbs to have a bedroom community," said Dean Gibson, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.
The principal way developers seek to change restrictive regulations is through "upzoning," amendments that allow them to build more buildings on a particular site or to change the kind of structure allowed from single-family houses, say, to stores.
In Montgomery County, the County Council has the final say on changes in the zoning code. The Council makes its decisions after considering the recommendations of a hearing examiner who is supposed to be impartial, and the county Planning Board, a political body. Both the planning board and the hearing examiner are supposed to base their decisions on things like weather the increased density would result in overcrowding in the schools or traffic congestion, and on whether the proposed rezoning would be compatible with other types of development in the neighborhood.
When lawyers for Linowes and Blocher appear before the hearing examiner or the Planning Board, they often are bringing their case to former colleagues. Most of the firm's 26 lawyers at one time worked as assistant county attorneys in Montgomery, defending the county's zoning decisions, usually against citizen groups.
Barbara Sears, a lawyer who recently joined the firm, was the associate general counsel for the Park and Planning against citizens for developers who disagreed with its zoning recommendations; Charles Dalrymple was a hearing examiner.
"You know the organization and you know the people," Dalrymple said of his experience as a hearing examiner. "You just can't say enough for knowing the people. It's not that they give you stuff you're not entitled to, but they can find time for you."
Members of the firm have used their close relationships with government officials -- and their knowledge of how the county runs -- to help create the rules of the rezoning game.
Until 1962, a developer in the county could not get a change in zoning unless his lawyer could prove that there had been a change in the neighborhood -- like a new highway running through it or a mistake in the master plans. Developers had some difficulty proving either.
Then, in 1963, Linowes initiated an amendment to the zoning law that made it easier for developers to alter a neighborhood's master plan. The amendment created the first "floating" zone allowing a specific use of land anywhere in the county as long as it did not create a nuisance for the immediate neighborhood.
The first "floating zone" was for light industries. It has been followed by a number of others, including those for town houses and central business districts.
Sometime, the type of complex that a developer wants to build is not permitted by the county's zoning laws. In those cases, lawyers for Linowes and Blocher initiate amendments to the zoning law.
For example, on the land off Shady Grove Road in Rockville where Western Development Corp. wants to build a hotel, convention center, office buildings and a shopping center.
In addition, the zoning does not permit construction of building more than 42 feet high -- 11 stories -- less than the builders at Western Development want.
Do Dalrymple, representing the developers, wrote a letter to Royce Hanson, the head of the Park and Planning Commission, suggesting that the zone for shopping centers be changed to permit high-rise buildings, hotels, convention centers and office buildings with shopping centers.
Hanson, who approved of the idea, sent it to the Park and Planning Board, which endorsed it. Now, the council is considering amending the law.
"What we wanted to do, the ordinance would not allow us to do." Dalrymple said in a recent interview. "So we want to amend the C2 (commerical) zone to allow for the increased height and for the additional (convention center, hotel, office) uses."
County residents who live miles away from the proposed complex are fighting the suggested zoning amendment, because they do not want high-rises, hotels or office buildings in their shopping centers. They also say that such an amendment will change the landscape of the county, taking business away from the town center of places like Rockville, Silver Spring and Bethesda, and spawning "suburban sprawl."
Last year, John Delaney, Linowes and Blocher initiated another amendment to the county zoning code that was designed to help a client John Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald wanted to build town houses on 22 acres of land he owns at Democracy Boulevard and Westlake Drive in Potomac. But residents in the area -- who live in single-family detached homes on large lots -- successfully fought his attempts to have his land rezoned for town houses density -- 12.5 houses per acre -- was too great for that neighborhood.
Fitzgerald refiled a petition to have his land rezoned for town houses -- this time, using the new eight town houses per acre zone. The County Council approved the rezoning.
The ability of Linowes and Blocher lawyers to get their way by amending the zoning whereever the developers county residents once, they thought their master plans were sancrosanct; now, they are not so sure.
Linowes and Blocher are absolutely the agents of change," lamented Marilyn Piety. "They break the zoning wherever the developers want it broken."
Longtime opponents concede that the firm's experience in zoning law and professionalism makes it a formidable opponent.
"They do such a good job of presenting their side," said County Council member Rose Crenca, one of the few council members who regularly votes against the zoning changes the firm's lawyers propose. "They have the time, the wherewithal and the talent. And they do their research."
"The planners and Linowes and Blocher are always coming up with ideas that they say are "innovative and exciting," says Crenca."Those are just buzzwords for increased growth."
For his part, Linowes attributes his firm's success to the lawyer's "careful" selection of cases. "And we hate to lose," Linowes said.