This story was updated at 12:30 April 26, 2013.
A Montgomery County judge has denied legal fees in the acrimonious battle for Brickyard Farm, pulling no punches in his decision.
“... [T]he entire episode left the oft-stated and under-exercised notion of government ‘transparency’ with a black eye,” Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg wrote. He said the actions of the county government and the Montgomery County Board of Education “resulted in an enormous waste of private, county and state resources.”
Greenberg issued the order on Tuesday, finally ending the lengthy legal battle over the 20-acre plot where Nick Maravell operated an organic farm for the last 30 years but the county has been working to place a soccer complex.
Court cases over the site were dropped in March and Montgomery County Board of Education officials were working to create a more transparent process for leasing its vacant land.
In their case, Maravell and his co-complainants — including Curtis Uhre of the Brickyard Coalition’s steering committee — had argued that the lease of the land from the school system to the county had been illegal and lacked proper public input.
But issues of transparency aside, in his order Tuesday, Greenberg said Maravell and the Brickyard Coalition sought legal action against the county and the school board for personal reasons, in Maravell’s case, “for the purpose of renewing and reinvigorating his expired lease,” or enabling him to negotiate its renewal.
“In that way, he could continue to farm the school board’s land at a substantially below-market rental, in a county where farmland is dwindling,” Greenberg wrote. “Petitioner Uhre’s interest piggybacks Maravell’s, and it doesn’t take a jaundiced observer to deduce that, perhaps understandably, the petitioners had no desire to see an influx of soccer players and parents regularly invade their affluent Potomac neighborhood.”
Greenberg said Maravell and the coalition should not be awarded attorney fees for their claims which were “clearly personal to them and their immediate neighbors.”
Had the judge ordered those fees paid, it would have been the taxpayers of Montgomery County who would have footed the bill, he noted in his order.
Uhre said that although it is always difficult to persuade a court to grant private party legal fees, they felt that, in this case they should attempt it.
“I hope people understand there was more going on here than soccer versus organic farm. If we are going to maintain an orderly growth process and protection of our communities, that’s what the issue was all about,” he said.
He said the group was seeking reimbursement of the segment of the legal fees they felt dealt with the Open Meetings Act, saying the amount was in the low $30,000 range.
Though they didn’t get the monetary return they asked for, Uhre said, Greenberg’s statement about the episode leaving the notion of government transparency with a black eye pleased him.
“It’s certainly important when things are done wrong to have a third party like the court say so,” he said.
When the county announced its intention to sub-lease the school board-owned Brickyard property to Montgomery Soccer Inc., several citizens organizations joined forces work against the plan.
Maravell’s lease expired March of last year, but it was extended until August 2012. After his lease expired, the school board leased the land to the county.
But Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett backed out of that lease in February at what he said was the urging of state lawmakers.
All but five of the county’s 32 state senators and delegates signed letters urging the school board to reconsider allowing the farm to operate on the land.
By backing out, Leggett put the property back in the hands of the school board, which has listed it as a future middle school site.
“It would be wonderful to continue to have an organic farm in the heart of Potomac, and maybe that will come to pass,” Greenberg wrote. “For now, however, this tract of land belongs to the Board of Education. It is likely that someday, in the not-too-distant future, a middle school will sit on this site. There will be automobiles and school buses, noisy adolescents, outdoor tennis, and basketball courts, and lots of traffic.”
County Executive spokesman Patrick Lacefield declined to comment on the judge’s order, merely saying that the decision to not award legal fees was in the public interest.
Nick Maravell, too, declined to comment on Greenberg’s decision saying, “I think the statement stands on its own.”
Staff writer Peggy McEwan contributed to this report.