When the small house next door in her Bethesda neighborhood was leveled and a new concrete foundation laid a few months ago, Ann McDonald knew she had a problem.
The foundation alone was wider than her quaint red bungalow, and it was bigger than all the other houses on Saratoga Avenue. She searched the county government's Web site for information on zoning and planning laws that would give her a strategy to prevent the new house from towering over the Glen Cove neighborhood and changing its character.
"I was a total neophyte," said McDonald, who has lived in her house for 30 years. "I wanted to know if I had some grounds to protest this."
Although the house next door is now almost finished and indeed as large as she feared, McDonald discovered a valuable tool in her research: the Office of the People's Counsel.
It's the smallest and newest county agency, staffed by one lawyer -- Martin Klauber, a veteran in planning and zoning issues. Tucked away on the second floor of the old council office building on Maryland Avenue in Rockville, Klauber, 63, is an advocate, a resource and an ombudsman of sorts. His office is stacked with brochures and information on how residents can effectively voice their opinion on zoning issues.
The one thing he is not is an advocate for individuals.
"I represent the public interest of Montgomery County," said Klauber, of Bethesda. "That may be lights, roads, screening or landscaping."
And, he said, he offers an independent voice. "I am not pro- or anti-development," Klauber said. "I'm pro-process."
Responding to the county's fast-growing development, the Montgomery County Council created the office in 2000 to offer residents technical assistance on complex zoning issues. The office joined three others in the state that have opened during the last decade.
Over the past four years, McDonald said, hundreds of residents have tapped his services. Last year, the office held 463 meetings with residents and was involved in 33 zoning cases, he said.
The county's zoning and land-use regulations can be extremely difficult for residents to navigate, said Fritz Edelstein, president of the Tuckerman Heights Homeowners Association in North Bethesda. His group became intimately familiar with zoning laws while tackling a high-rise condominium development proposed by Georgetown Preparatory School.
"Some of the process is totally obtuse," Edelstein said. "For a lay person to have to deal with all the nuances of the planning process . . . well, daunting is an understatement."
As the county's first people's counsel, Klauber said he has tried to help residents understand the process. "Zoning affects the way you live," he said. "It affects what's down the street and around the corner. Not knowing this process . . . that's disenfranchisement of the highest level."
Klauber spends hours counseling residents in his office and at public hearings, explaining the five ways to change how land is developed: rezoning, special exceptions, subdivisions, site plans and variances.
"He takes lots of time to explain to people what their rights are," said Norman Knopf, a Rockville zoning lawyer. "He is a valuable resource."
Often, residents will speak up at public hearings and simply say they don't like the way something looks, Knopf said. But the decisions don't "run on aesthetics," he said.
Klauber helps residents define and sharpen their arguments so they can understand and argue for or against such issues as road capacity or the proximity to lot lines, Knopf said.
A former county hearing examiner and an associate general counsel for the National Capital Planning Commission, the agency that deals with federal land within the District, Klauber has a strong footing in the field of planning and zoning. In the early 1970s, he was a member of the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment and a special assistant corporation counsel in the city.
Although the statutes creating his office emphasize his informational role, Klauber sees himself as a mediator -- particularly in cases where both sides have their own lawyers and are locked in an impasse.
In the case of the Georgetown Prep development, the homeowners association hired Knopf to represent them in zoning hearings. The parties disagreed over the size, scale and height of the proposed condominium development.
Klauber "was a conduit. He made decisions I didn't like. He didn't favor one or the other," Edelstein said.
Bob Metz, the lawyer representing Georgetown Prep, said he has asked Klauber to intervene as a mediator in other cases.
"I thought he played a very important role," Metz said of the Georgetown Prep case. "There was a multitude of opinions; he brought it all into one voice."
Klauber's opinions often swayed one of the sides to compromise, the lawyers said, breaking the impasse on issues. Both sides knew that Klauber could influence zoning officials on whether to grant final approval.
But some residents and lawyers worry that a potential weakness in the Office of the People's Counsel could be in its ability to advocate and fulfill its name: people's counsel.
"He is employed by the county," Edelstein said. "If he goes to battle with the planning or with the appeal board and says, 'This is all wrong, you're not treating people right,' how sure-footed is he? That's the tight line," Edelstein said.
But Klauber said he does not support one party over another in a case, whether it is a developer or a homeowners association. To do otherwise would be to fail at the job of people's counsel.
"The job is not about taking sides," Klauber said. "I pick issues."
Even though the people's counsel didn't take on McDonald's cause, just getting enough information to tackle the zoning process was useful, she said. She is now involved with a group organized by residents to examine ways to amend county zoning regulations.
"For the first time of my life I understand what people feel like when they get gentrified," McDonald said. "I spent 20 years landscaping property for privacy. Now that's all gone.
"I'm not going to be able to stop what's going on next to me," she said. "I am willing to pursue something to help other people."