Citizen watchdog and former commissioner candidate Clare Whitbeck filed a lawsuit in state Circuit Court last week against the St. Mary's County Planning Commission and Planning Director Jon Grimm to stop proposals for two developments from moving forward until planners determine whether there are adequate public facilities to support them.
Whitbeck said the planning commission violated the county's new zoning ordinance in December when it endorsed the concept site plans for two developments -- Settlers Landing and Lexington Park Apartments. At that meeting, Grimm recommended approval.
As proposed, Settlers Landing would consist of 240 apartments, 72 townhouses and 69 single-family houses on about 50 acres in the First Colony development in Lexington Park. The Lexington Park Apartments would go up on the east side of Willows Road and include 252 apartments on 65 acres.
In her lawsuit, filed Tuesday, Whitbeck cites several provisions from the ordinance to support her claim. One reads: "In order to approve the concept plan, the Planning Commission shall make findings that the proposed development . . . will be served by adequate facilities."
No such studies have been done yet, Whitbeck contends. The Leonardtown resident is asking the court to block further approvals on the developments and to order the planning commission to make a finding regarding whether space exists in the public schools for the children projected to eventually live in the developments. Without one, she said, the concept site plan should be void.
"If this process is allowed to stand, then it will become the process we use for this type of proposal," she said. "I want to see the [ordinance] process followed."
As of Friday afternoon, County Attorney John B. Norris III said the planning commission and Grimm had not been served with the lawsuit. He said that Grimm would make a finding regarding adequate facilities before any final site plans were approved.
Beyond that, Norris said, "We wouldn't comment on any pending litigation."
Students from the proposed developments would attend Great Mills High School, Leonardtown and Spring Ridge middle schools and Hollywood and Park Hall elementary schools. Whitbeck argues that several of these already are crowded.
According to the proposed attendance redistricting plans released this month by the St. Mary's public school system, Spring Ridge Middle School is the only facility with available seats among the schools that would be affected by the planned developments.
If the findings were made as outlined in the ordinance, Whitbeck said, the developers could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in planning costs by learning that there is not enough school capacity to support their projects at this time.
"To let this go forward is unfair to the builders," she said. "To let this go forward and building to take place is certainly not fair to the children of St. Mary's County. We need to have the growth take place slower so we can have more than one revenue cycle to have the money to build schools for these young people."
But others who follow the planning process disagree with those contentions. They say many projects never materialize beyond the concept site plan, and the initial approval does not mean apartments will go up any time soon.
Frank Taylor, who recently ended his eight-year tenure as chairman of the planning commission, said the county's Technical Evaluation Committee would study whether a development met the adequate public facilities ordinance before the project came to the commission for further approval.
He acknowledges that the county needs to study ways to strike a balance between fostering growth in the designated development areas and maintaining adequate roads, storm water management and school capacity. But Taylor, who had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit, said tying up proposals in court until new schools are built is unrealistic.
"Ms. Whitbeck and her supporters, I guess, feel that they can stop growth by suing," he said. "I don't know if there is merit to this lawsuit."
This is not the first time Whitbeck has gone to court for a cause. In 2001, she sued the county to force members of a committee appointed to design a town center for Callaway to file financial disclosures. A judge ruled in her favor.
The current lawsuit is being funded by Citizens for Sensible Growth, a group of supporters Whitbeck assembled specifically for this litigation.