A few nights ago, an aide to Gov. Harry Hughes strolled into a meeting on condominium laws, confident that he had found a compromise to resolve a dispute over how to regulate the ever-increasing number of conversions of apartments to condominimums.
Within minutes of his entrance, the carefully nurtured compromise fell apart and a long-running feud between Hughes' office, the commission he appointed to reqrite state condominium laws and officials in Montgomery County, the jurisdiction with the most at stake in the issue, resumed, almost certain to create another divisive debate in this year's already volatile General Assembly session.
That debate will find the governor in the unusual posture of opposing uniform statewide condominium laws, a position supported by the powerful real estate lobby and a majority on his own commision, including two influential state senators. Instead, Hughes has indicated support for the argument stated most forcefully by Montgomery County that local governments should control condominium conversions to meet local conditions and housing policies, even if that means restricting developers' plans for their own property.
Although the governor's aides have spent the days since the unsuccessful night meeting pressing for a new compromise to avoid this scenario, Montgomery officials, who have charged the commission with prodeveloper bias, have begun drafting their own proposed legislation and are gearing up for an intense lobbying campaign on the issue.
The commission has split into factions, with several tenant representatives threatening to write dissenting reports and the two senators vowing to introduce the commission-proposed legislation themselves, without the governor's or Montgomery's approval.
"Right now it looks like everything's fallen apart," moaned one Montgomery official. "Unless something changes next week [when a final commision vote is expected] it'll become a holy war."
The war began just about a year ago and is being fought over technical provisions of proposed changes in state condominium laws that will determine the extent to which local governments can enact their own condominium regulations on such issues as moratoriums on conversions, provisions to set aside apartments in converted properties for disadvantaged tenants and tenant rights of first refusal during the conversion process.
Real estate lobbyists in Annapolis have pushed for the state to set standards and regulate condominium conversions because, they say, local control hurts developers, who have to learn and conform to an array of local laws. In the past, such laws, particularly in Montgomery, have been tenant oriented and placed too many restrictions on condominium developers, they say.
This is an argument that a majority of the commission, including several attorneys with a large number of developer clients, has at least initially supported. Drafts of proposed legislation developed by the commission gave local governments the right to legislate on some aspects of condominium conversions but left law making on major issues in the hands of the state.
"Too many controls [at the local level] have caused a shortage of housing and an increase in prices," said state Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), an attorney whose law firm represents many county developers. "The problem [with county regulation of condominium conversion] is that [county officials] become so responsive to tenant groups that [they] do not do what is best over all. The problem I have is with the county government going off the deep end when someone screams and hollers."
Montgomery and other local governments such as Prince George's County and Baltimore, where conversions of rental housing is just now starting to displace tenants, have pushed for state laws that would set only minimum and general guidelines and leave it up to each subdivision in the state to regulate the conversion process to conform with local conditins and housing policies.
For Montgomery, more than any other local government in Maryland, the issue has become a crusade. The county has undergone two waves of condominium conversions which have removed nearly 25 perent of the approximately 68,000 apartments listed on county rental rolls at the beginning of the decade. Last year, during the second and more major wave of conversions, some 10 percent of the county's renters were told that their apratments were to be converted to condominium units, according to state legislators from Montgomery.
To deal with what they say is a rental housing crisis, the county government in the summer of 1979 imposed a moratorium on conversions. The County Council also enacted several laws to protect tenants, one of which gave tenants groups the right to buy a building proposed for conversion before it was offered to anyone else. Another ordered developers to pay up to $750 in resettlement costs for tenants affected by conversions.
Both laws were immediately challenged by a group of landlords, who charged that the laws conflicted with state regulations allowing condiminium conversions. This fall, the state's highest court agreed with the landlords and overturned the county laws.
It was at this point that the focus of the condominium battle shifted to the state house in Annapolis, where the commission appointed by Hughes had been working for several months to come up with a new comprehensive set of condominium laws to be submitted to the legislature this session.
Over the summer the commission members had indicated support for legislation that left condominium regulation up to the state, a move which Montgomery officials and tenant groups immediately attacked and said reflected a prodeveloper bias. Commission members said the charge was ridiculous.
Gilchrist and the county's aggressive Annapolis lobbyist, Blair Lee IV, son of the former acting governor, descended on Hughes' office and demanded that the governor pressure the commission to change directions. If not, Montgomery would stage a minirevolt on the condominium issue in the legislature.
As a result of these discussions, Hughes' aide John Griffin met with the commission's two most influential members, state Sen. and Commission Chairman Jerome Connell (D-Anne Arundel) and Sen. Levitan, hoping to find a compromise that would avoid a flare up this session over the issue.
After a series of meetings and luncheons with the two senators that culminated this week, Griffin felt he had reached such a compromise, which would set broad state laws on condominium conversions but give county governments the ability to pass local laws in almost all areas.
Griffin drafted the compromise bill and brought it to the commission. A few minutes afer consideration of the compromise began, it was amended by various commission members, with the support of the two senators and the attorney members of the commission, to restrict local governments' ability to pass their own conversion laws.
With that, Montgomery officials geared up for a session-ong battle on the issue, several tenant members of the panel went home to write what they promised would be dissenting opinions and Griffin began new behind-the-scenes efforts to work a new last-minute compromise that the governor and, hopefully, Montgomery would be able to support.