After toiling 14 years on the District government's zoning farm team, Steven E. Sher is ready for the major leagues.
Sher is not an attorney, but he's leaving his $60,000-a-year job as executive director of both the city's Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment to make more money at Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lane, one of the city's two most prominent zoning law firms. When he starts his new job after Labor Day, Sher will help developers cope with the District's zoning and planning laws.
Robert Jenkins, until recently a lawyer for the D.C. City Council, has resigned, too. He finished analyzing and redrafting portions of the city's comprehensive land-use plan and then left for the law firm of Linowes & Blocher, the city's and the nation's biggest zoning law firm, where he'll help represent developers in D.C. zoning cases.
Sher and Jenkins have joined what has almost become a tradition in the city government's land-use, planning, historic preservation and zoning offices: When D.C. officials have gained more than a little expertise in the city's high-stakes development industry, it's time to head to Wilkes, Artis or Linowes & Blocher.
The two men are just the latest of a parade of former city officials who have been recruited by the two firms, which have easily been able to promise their new charges more money than the District government can provide.
Once stationed in their new jobs, the former city officials have represented the city's biggest development teams as they seek to transform the city's remaining open land or redevelop faded downtown tracts into gleaming new office and commercial complexes.
Occasionally, Wilkes, Artis and Linowes & Blocher also have represented citizen groups in their fights against the encroachment of more development.
But the two firms are best known by developers as the lawyers to hire when they need a city zoning approval or a land-use problem solved.
Linowes & Blocher's roster includes J. Kirkwood White, who has been with the firm for 7 1/2 years after a four-year stint as the city's deputy planning director. Walter B. Lewis, once chairman of the city's Zoning Commission, joined the firm last year. Former assistant corporation counsel Michael A. Cain is at Linowes & Blocher, as is Cynthia Giordano, once the lawyer for former city council member Jerry A. Moore Jr.'s transportation committee.
White said that among other clients he has represented the Hechinger Co., Hecht's, Woodward & Lothrop, the Brookings Institution and developers for the massive Techworld trade mart planned near the D.C. Convention Center as they sought -- and, more importantly, won -- approval for various construction projects in the city. On the flip side, he recently helped a group of Woodley Park residents fight off plans by the West African nation of Benin to build a 38-foot-high radio tower in the back yard of its embassy in a residential neighborhood.
At Wilkes, Artis, the letterhead includes such names as former D.C. corporation counsel C. Francis Murphy and former acting corporation counsel Louis P. Robbins, both of whom joined the firm in the 1970s. On occasion, they have represented Western Development Corp., in its conflicts with citizen activists over historic preservation in Georgetown, as well as doing other, nondevelopment legal work.
Jon Farmer, who helped represent the city's Redevelopment Land Agency and advised the city's historic preservation officer while he was an assistant corporation counsel, joined Wilkes, Artis last January. Anne Adams, who once reviewed construction in historic districts for the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, now advises Wilkes, Artis clients on how to win federal tax credit certification for historic preservation work.
The exodus of D.C. development officials to the two firms -- something akin to Pentagon generals leaving for work with defense contractors -- has distressed numerous citizen activists, who often find themselves at odds with developers moving ever closer to their neighborhoods with large-scale office and commercial complexes.
These activists said the departure of the officials inevitably will leave the city government with less experienced officials who are not as knowledgeable about the intricacies of the city's zoning laws and land-use plans as the former officials who are now working for developers.
The transformation of District officials from regulators of development into promoters of it also occasionally has raised the possibility of conflicts of interest.
Georgetown residents contested Robbins' involvement as a lawyer for Western Development in one lawsuit concerning construction on the Georgetown waterfront since he had earlier, as a city lawyer, defended the Zoning Commission's action in upholding development on the Potomac River shoreline. The D.C. Court of Appeals, however, said his representation of Western Development was proper.
Farmer said that when he joined Wilkes, Artis, he went through the firm's pending cases and screened himself from 50 of which he had knowledge when he worked for the corporation counsel's office.
"I can't be involved," he said, and other lawyers in the firm "can't pick my brain."
Nonetheless, Jay Langford, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Northeast Washington, complained about the exit of city officials, saying, "They're all defecting over to the people who try to bend the rules. There's money to be made in being able to bend those zoning regulations or at least make them do what you want."
Larry Monaco, president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, said, "It's a constantly amazing, recurring phenomenon. The attraction is quite lucrative, I imagine. [These two firms] make no bones about trying to recruit the best people they can for their clients."
Harriet B. Hubbard, a zoning watchdog for the Dupont Circle-based Residential Action Coalition, said she believes "very strongly that what they're trying to do is rob us of all the talent we ever had. I think there's a concerted effort to get these particular people. Then they go and work for these people who don't have the city's best interests at heart at all."
R. Robert Linowes, who started his own law firm in 1956 after working as the deputy Montgomery County attorney, dismisses such complaints with the easy but forceful manner that has made him one of the city's best known businessmen-lawyers.
"Government will not pay enough to keep its people," Linowes said. "If the people are good, they search for other opportunities. The private sector offers them the opportunity. There's nothing devious about it.
"We're continually on the lookout for new lawyers, but also people with some skill," he said. "Most of the people in the firm have a background in planning, construction, architecture or zoning."
Moreover, Linowes said that by hiring former government officials, "You have the added opportunity of having watched them in action."
Whayne S. Quin, one of Wilkes, Artis' top zoning attorneys, said, "Obviously, we want the best people we can get."
Quin said that as legal work becomes "increasingly varied and complex," Wilkes, Artis has found it useful to hire specialists such as Sher and Adams who are not lawyers.
Sher said, "I am not a lawyer and I'm not going to be one. I'm going to help them with management and planning. Those are two things I'm good at.
"I am by profession an urban planner," he said. "I'll be working with clients, showing them what goals the city has for development, how from a planning standpoint they can accomplish what they want to do, or if it can't be done, as the case may be."
"After eight years [as executive director of the city's zoning agencies], you look for something else to do," Sher said. "They came to me. They came along at the right time."
Likewise, Jenkins, 35, said after 10 years of working at the City Council, he was anxious to leave.
"In terms of my own career, it's where I wanted to go. I wanted to get into private practice," he said.
Fred Greene, the city's planning director, said, "The city in a sense serves as a training ground. These people get exposure and if you do well you get picked up by a big firm.
"It's very useful to those law firms to know how to get things done in this city," Greene said. "The unfortunate thing is that the city loses good people when they've learned their jobs."