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February 21, 2014

Mini-marina debate continues in Garrett County

Ethics complaint filed against commission chairman

OAKLAND — Carol Jacobs, president of Aquatic Center Inc. in McHenry, has filed an ethics complaint with the Garrett County Ethics Commission regarding a potential conflict of interest involving Garrett County Commission Chairman Robert Gatto.

In July, the Garrett County Planning Commission recommended that county commissioners endorse William Meagher’s request to amend the Deep Creek Watershed Zoning Ordinance to add a new category of use for boat rentals not offering any services associated with a marina. The recommendation included certain modifications. Gatto recused himself from a county commission public hearing held in September based on the fact that his company, Gatto Electric, completed electrical work for Meagher, owner of Lakeside Creamery.

Gatto departed the public hearing and didn’t return until after the presentation and all public comments on the zoning amendments were heard, according to Jacobs.

During a county commission meeting Tuesday, Gatto also recused himself from a vote regarding Meagher's request to make several amendments to the zoning ordinance to add a new category of use for boat rental including boat rides and/or boat tours as a separate service business and not offering any other services associated with a marina. Commissioner Gregan Crawford made a motion to approve Meagher’s request but it died for lack of a second, according to Monty Pagenhardt, county administrator.

“There is no pending proposal for any change to any ordinance,” said Pagenhardt.

However, the county commission did vote to approve the planning commission’s recommendation that several amendments be made to the Table of Dimensional Requirements for Principal Uses in the Deep Creek Watershed Zoning Ordinance, according to Pagenhardt.

Jacobs alleges that Gatto shouldn’t have recommended or voted to separate the amendments because they contain definitive language to further Meagher’s interests by allowing recreational uses in a shopping center, which were not allowed before.

The ethics complaint, which was filed online, was sent to Pagenhardt, who declined comment on the complaint. Pagenhardt will send a certified copy of the complaint via registered mail to the ethics commission and to Gatto.

The ethics commission is comprised of Thomas Janes, Wayne Wilt and Jack Riley, who was appointed by the county commissioners Tuesday.

Gatto will have 15 days to respond to the complaint and once the response is received a hearing will be held with the ethics commission to determine if there is cause to proceed further. Failure to respond to the notification of the ethics complaint form will have an unfavorable effect and could result in a default hearing with no input from the nonresponding party, according to the county’s website.

Gatto returned to the meeting Tuesday after recusing himself and voted along with the commissioners to send the matter back to the planning commission for consideration and review of context for potential use as a special exemption. Gatto and Crawford voted in favor of the motion and Jim Raley voted against it.  

Jacobs also alleges that Gatto should not have participated in that vote.

“I would challenge the legitimacy of the commissioners’ vote to refer this back to the planning commission to determine the feasibility of a special exception on the grounds that Gatto was still conflicted and should not have participated,” Jacobs said in her complaint.

The motion to refer the matter back to the planning commission was done because the commissioners are not planning professionals and because they wanted the planning commission to examine the concept of a special exemption use, according to a statement from Gatto and Crawford.

“The board (of commissioners) has not asked for, taken nor has it proposed any change to the Deep Creek Watershed Zoning Ordinance nor does this specifically apply to or is related to the petitions submitted by William Meagher,” says the statement.

The planning commission will now be charged with either approving, disapproving or tabling the request for a special exemption use.  

“The referral back to the planning commission does not automatically include or allow Mr. Meagher’s proposal to advance as the split vote ended any additional consideration of it,” says the statement.  

Jacobs asks that the commissioners’ decisions, to both approve the amendments to the table in the zoning ordinance and to send the matter of special exemption use back to the planning commission, be reviewed separately.

“These decisions have adversely affected my business and others,” stated Jacobs in her ethics complaint.

The Deep Creek Lake Property Owner’s Association, which is opposed to Meagher’s request to amend the zoning ordinance for a mini-marina, will meet March 15 to discuss how to proceed based on the commissioners’ decisions, according to Bob Hoffman, president of the association.

Phil St. Moritz, owner and president of Bill’s Marine Service LLC, initiated the original legal action to close down Meagher’s mini-marina. During a hearing in June in Garrett County Circuit Court, Judge Jim Sherbin found that a previous zoning amendment that allowed Meagher to run the mini-marina was of no legal effect and ordered that the decision by the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals to issue Meagher a permit be reversed.

Attempts to reach Gatto were unsuccessful.

Contact Elaine Blaisdell at eblaisdell@times-news.com.

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