Opponents of a controversial Anne Arundel County zoning change filed suit Thursday in county Circuit Court, seeking to overturn the legislation that could intensify growth in some of the county's most rural areas.

The suit alleges that the County Council violated state law in passing several amendments to the bill because the changes would allow development that opponents believe is prohibited by long-established land-use principles. It asks the court to throw out all or part of the bill and force the council to restart the zoning process.

The bill in question, which rezoned the South County area, was the subject of heated debate among residents before it passed the council last month.

"We hope [this lawsuit] will send a message not only to this County Council, but to county governments around the state, that in making zoning decisions, they are required to follow their general development plans and they can't just change them in order to benefit certain property owners," said Russell B. Stevenson Jr., who is representing the plaintiffs — a mix of civic associations and individual residents who live near the newly zoned lands.

Stevenson is chairman of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance and is providing free legal counsel to the plaintiffs.

Councilman Jerry Walker, a Gambrills Republican who represents South County on the council and pushed for many of the disputed zoning changes, said the changes should be viewed in perspective. In an email, he pointed out that the land affected by the law makes up less than 1 percent of the total acreage in his district.

County Executive John R. Leopold, who vetoed 16 of the amendments that he called the "most egregious," reiterated Thursday that he opposed much of the council's actions, though he said he could not comment specifically on a pending suit.

"I wasn't pleased with the action taken by the council," said Leopold, a Republican. "I've always said that keeping South County rural can't be viewed only as a slogan, but as an important policy that should be respected."

County Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson said he had just received a copy of the suit Thursday afternoon and could not discuss it in detail.

"My role is to defend the legislative actions of the County Council, and I intend to do that," Hodgson said.

The council ultimately overturned 10 of Leopold's vetoes, including zoning changes that allow a car dealership in Edgewater and the expansion of a mobile home community in Lothian. While some of the most disputed land-use changes — including development around Lothian Circle and south of Route 214, an informal demarcation line — were scrapped, opponents of the bill said the adopted changes violate the county's overarching General Development Plan.

The suit cites a 2009 law passed by the General Assembly that says "deviations from the [general development] plan should be rare." State lawmakers had sought to overrule an earlier Court of Appeals decision that called the plans "advisory."

Stevenson, the attorney, said the suit may serve as a "test case" to determine whether the legislature or the courts have the last word on the issue.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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