The elected Friendship Heights Village Council acted "within the scope of its authority" when it used thousands of dollars in public money to wage costly legal battles against high-rise development in the village, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled this week.
The court's decision came in a suit brought in late 1974 by a group of irate taxpayers -- including one former Village Council member -- who had charged that it was illegal for council members to use public funds to fight their antidevelopment wars in the courts.
The challengers had said that since the local council has no zoning or development powers under the village's limited home-rule charter, council members should not be allowed to take zoning fights to the courts at all.
But the appeals court disagreed. "The Village Council had the implied power to engage in administrative and judicial proceedings to oppose intensification of development in Friendship Heights," wrote Judge Rita Davidson in a 15-page opinion handed down Monday and delivered to attorneys yesterday.
She said council efforts to oppose intensification of development were proper since the council had the responsibility to repair the streets and collect the trash once the development projects were built.
The Village Council, which is the elected governing body of the tiny but highly organized Montgomery County community on Washington's western border, has gone to court repeatedly since 1973, fighting developers and the county's planning board in often-successful efforts to block and delay the construction of county-backed projects.
The council has often been criticized for holding a de facto veto over all village developments by threatening to delay projects through lengthy court action.
Yesterday, Village Council chairman Dr. Alfred Muller hailed the court's ruling as a victory. "The court's opinion said we could be involved in any way on zoning matters that affect our village, even though we don't have zoning powers," he said. "It's a victory for the individuals, it's a victory for the community, and it's a victory for local governments in general."
In the specific cases covered by the suit, the council spent a total of $16,961.61 to challenge the issuance of a building permit for a high-rise condominium; oppose the construction of a two-level store and office complex; support a proposed limit on development of some areas in Friendship Heights, and commission its own $8,000 development study.
Most of that cost was for attorneys' fees.