Listening two weeks ago to the Spy interview with Talbot County Councilperson Pete Lesher, I found the content troubling and confusing.
Lesher went into extensive detail, struggling at some points, to explain that the Lakeside at Trappe development was a dead issue. The county council would not rescind its faulty decision to approve an outsized project that could bring a harvest of 2,500 residential units.
Lesher, a highly intelligent and deliberative public official, pointed to the decision in early November 2022 by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to grant sewage usage for 400 homes. MDE would have to approve all other hookups for additional phases of a subdivision injurious to the rural character of the Trappe area.
Councilperson Lesher said he made his decision after speaking with the county attorney, members of the Talbot Integrity Project (TIP) and “others.” Normally I would grant Lesher the benefit of the doubt and accept his reasoning. As an Easton town councilperson for eight years and county representative for four years, “Pete” typically approaches decisions sensibly and cautiously.
In this instance, I disagree with what was obviously a painful decision. I do so after reading a thoughtful letter to the editor of the Talbot Spy by Mike McConnel, a Royal Oak resident and retired Philadelphia attorney comfortable with land use issues and legal interpretation. I respect his sound judgment.
If this non-lawyer understood McConnel’s letter, which drew several favorable comments, the county council is legally empowered to decide whether the Lakeside community should proceed—regardless of MDE’s decision to approve sewage capacity for 400 homes. McConnel’s legal premise is not his; it was the result of due diligence conducted by a Baltimore law firm.
In answer as to whether the county council can rescind Resolution 281 authorizing Lakeside and approve Resolution 381to execute the recission, Gallagher, Evelius & Jones said the council “unquestionably is authorized to rescind Resolution 281…Particularly in a case where new facts have come to light or a resolution was based on material assertions of fact that have turned out to be inaccurate or incomplete, the Council not only has the authority to rescind the resolution, but a responsibility to do so.”
Were I betting on the legal expertise of the county attorney versus a law firm familiar with land use and administrative law, I would opt for the latter. The reasoning is logical, not political. The decision to forgo rescission is legally unsustainable.
Throughout this tortuous process, the county attorney wrongly advised that the council could not rescind a planning commission resolution, which was based on faulty information. That assertion by the county attorney is flawed. Lesher and his council colleagues proceeded to move forward with an inappropriately large development based on incorrect guidance.
According to the law firm’s opinion and McConnel’s endorsement, the county council should not consider MDE’s actions as absolute. Further, the decision whether the developer’s rights are “vested” is one made by a court, not a political or administrative body. Based on Maryland Code, the council, should it rescind an amendment due to “changed circumstances or other local factors, the Code’s requirement that MDE approve or deny the amendment does not and will not stand in the way of the county’s control over development.”
While Lesher’s comments during the Spy interview seem to spell the end of the Lakeside contretemps, they also epitomize how sloppily the former and current county councils have managed a shameful disruption to Talbot County’s rural character—and inattentiveness to unexercised legal rights.
Dead issue? Probably. Regretfully.
TIP, led by Dan Watson, achieved a major victory despite the council’s acceptance of its own misguided reality: it galvanized residents to be aware of land use decisions and shine the public spotlight on the process. To avoid additional Lakesides, vigilant citizens must hold the county council accountable.
Political decision-making is often ugly, sometimes devoid of common sense to trusting constituents. That would be the case with this consequential matter.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.