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Mobtown Beat

Documents and Eyewitnesses

Judge orders Baltimore zoning board to produce records

Edward Ericson Jr.
An architect's rendering of the proposed Beans and Bread Homeless Center expansion.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 6/4/2010

A Circuit Court judge has ruled in favor of residents challenging the expansion of a homeless person’s service center in Upper Fells Point, and the decision may force the city’s zoning board to keep a written record of its deliberations.

The case concerns the nonprofit Beans and Bread, operated by St. Vincent DePaul. Neighbors, led by Deirdre Hammer, who lives next door to the center, have challenged the proposed doubling of the center’s floor space as too big and too likely to attract people who harm the neighborhood’s quality of life. Neighbors have complained about litter, public urination, and car burglaries, along with more serious crimes. In November, a Beans and Bread employee was charged with attempted murder after stabbing a center client. The employee, William H. Bryant, pleaded guilty in April to second-degree assault and received five years’ probation.

The Beans and Bread expansion is backed by city and state funds and supported by the mayor and state officials. Last fall, after the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals approved it, neighbors filed a “negative zoning appeal” in circuit court, contending that the board violated their free speech rights and state open meetings law. The neighbors asked for the full record of the meeting, but the board has not complied.

In an order dated April 29 and made public June 2, Judge John Howard ordered the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals to produce “meeting minutes and voting record in accordance with Md. Rule 7-206.” Rule 7-206 specifies that the record of a public body’s work “shall include the transcript of testimony and all exhibits . . . filed in the agency proceeding.”

The order does not defeat the Beans and Bread expansion, but at least delays it and provides the neighbors a stronger negotiating position. It also puts the zoning board on notice that its practices violate open meetings law.

David Tanner, executive director of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA), is on vacation and could not be reached for comment, according to a woman who answered the phone at the BMZA. The woman said that BMZA meetings are recorded and can be transcribed for a fee, but confirmed the board’s practice of going “off the record” during its deliberations, meaning that no official recording or transcription is available.

That practice has irked Remington neighborhood activist Joan Floyd for years. She and her husband, Doug Armstrong, have sued the board numerous times over other zoning decisions, in part because of this practice. Floyd was at the September 2009 meeting in which the BMZA approved the Beans and Bread expansion, and has followed that case.

“I’m pleased for the other folks that they won,” says Floyd, who was part of a separate case against the zoning board based on similar concerns about the same September 2009 hearing (she says she lost her case). "I actually sat in on the argument on [the Beans and Bread order], and I noticed that the judge seemed interested.”

“They framed the issue slightly differently,” Floyd says of the Beans and Bread plaintiffs. “In our case, we didn’t have a record—an official recording of what [the BMZA] actually did on the day of deliberation and vote—but we knew what they had done because we recorded it ourselves.” Floyd says her homemade tape recording and transcript showed that the BMZA actually accepted its chairwoman’s votes via cell phone. The board voted that day on an issue that Floyd opposed involving a restaurant, as well as voting for the Beans and Bread expansion. Floyd says that, aside from the questionable phone-in vote, the board’s scant deliberation—and failure to document those deliberations—raise questions about the board’s legal competence.

“When they do what they do, and they show how little effort they’re putting into it, you have to ask, ‘How does this come about?’" Floyd asks. "Because you get this three or four minutes of hemming and hawing” without any substantive discussion of the legal, procedural, or practical issues underpinning the decision. All those issues, Floyd explains, appears in the form of a memo from Tanner, “but he never presents it” to the board, she says, leaving open the question of who or what is in charge of the board’s actions.

Floyd says she hopes Howard’s decision in the Beans and Bread case forces the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals to document its deliberations. “Those of us who are trying to reform the way things are done, maybe we just scored something,” she says. “Because if they actually have to record what is said in deliberation, and they have to actually write down who voted which way, that is more than they do now.” Hammer, the lead plaintiff in the Beans and Bread case, agrees. “What the judge is doing now may not affect our case,” she says, “but will maybe change what is done at the zoning board.”

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