Friday, Feb. 29, 2008

Planners subpoena Ashton activist in case over missing road

Agency wants him to divulge comments to news agency

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The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission has issued a subpoena demanding that Ashton activist Steven J. Kanstoroom provide all records regarding his communications with The Gazette and other print and broadcast news organizations about disputes he and some landlocked property owners have with the commission.

The order was issued in connection with a civil action filed by a Sandy Spring couple who are among several landowners seeking access to a ‘‘Farm Road” that disappeared from planning agency records through a series of development approvals.

Maryland law prohibits the issuance of subpoenas to reporters or journalists to compel disclosure of information, notes, associated records and data or news sources.

Asked if the subpoena of Kanstoroom’s communications with reporters is an attempt to run around the Maryland shield law, planning board spokeswoman Valerie Berton said: ‘‘We don’t see it that way.”

Berton said, ‘‘Everything [Kanstoroom] is saying about this case could be relevant.”

A Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association official denounced the tactic.

‘‘It sounds like a variation on SLAPP lawsuits used to intimidate citizen activists,” said John J. Murphy, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and former executive editor of The Gazette. SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation.

‘‘The Planning Board seems to be abusing their subpoena power to shut people up,” Murphy continued, adding that such action is inappropriate for a public agency, which the Planning Board is.

Kanstoroom’s subpoena calls for him to be deposed Monday. His lawyer has cited attorney-client privilege, attorney work-product privilege and investigatory privilege as reasons to limit his response.

Attorney work-product privilege protects materials a lawyer has prepared that might reveal case strategy, while investigatory privilege protects against the release of information that might jeopardize investigations by law enforcement.

Kanstoroom said he wouldn’t be able to comment on whether such an investigation was under way, but he denounced the Planning Agency’s action.

‘‘If they spent a tiny fraction of this energy doing the right thing, they wouldn’t be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money doing the wrong thing,” Kanstoroom said.

In its subpoena, the Planning Agency is also demanding all records and communications between Kanstoroom and the county’s Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley about the disputes.

Dagley has not responded yet to a request for comment left with his staff.

Kanstoroom has had his own arguments with the commission over tree cutting on a property where he holds a forest conservation easement.

Since last year, Kanstoroom has been a volunteer advocate for Sandy Spring landowners who need the planning agency to issue them addresses. Without addresses, they cannot build on their property.

These landowners are in the same predicament as the plaintiffs, but they are not suing the planning department.

The agency says it cannot issue addresses because road access the landowners claimed does not exist. A neighbor, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, placed a chain across an entrance to the road in 2006.

Kanstoroom, a retired pattern recognition and fraud detection expert, researched and helped the Sandy Spring landowners build their case.

Last month he entered the race for the County Council’s District 4 seat, left vacant by the Feb. 1 death of Marilyn J. Praisner. He is a Democrat.

The County Council appoints both the inspector general and planning commissioners and oversees their budgets, but the council’s lawyer Michael Faden said it would be inappropriate for him to comment about the appropriateness of subpoenas the planning board has issued to support its position in the lawsuit.