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Developer's appointment to Planning Commission sparks outrage

Sassan Shaool, president of Washco Developments Inc., was appointed to fill one of two vacancies

March 26, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • In this 2010 file photo, Sassan Shaool, president of Washco Developments Inc., speaks during a joint meeting of the Washington County Commissioners and the Washington County Planning Commission. Shaool was appointed Feb. 15 by a 4-1 vote to fill one of two vacancies on the planning commission, a seven-member board responsible for land-use planning decisions such as subdivision and site plan approvals and zoning changes.
Herald-Mail file photo

A decision last month by the Washington County Commissioners to appoint developer Sassan Shaool to the Washington County Planning Commission has sparked outrage among members of a local citizens group.

"It just seems to all of us that a developer on the planning commission is like putting a fox to oversee the henhouse," said Jim Laird, President of Citizens for the Protection of Washington County.

Shaool is president of Washco Developments Inc., the company behind major local projects such as Black Rock Estates and Rosewood Village.

He was appointed Feb. 15 by a 4-1 vote to fill one of two vacancies on the planning commission, a seven-member board responsible for land-use planning decisions such as subdivision and site plan approvals and zoning changes.

Commissioners President Terry Baker was the dissenting vote.

Critics of the appointment have noted that Shaool is listed in campaign finance records as having donated $900 to the campaign of Commissioner William B. McKinley, who made the motion to appoint Shaool.

A database on the Maryland Elections Center website, www.mdelections.org, shows that Shaool provided Citizens for Bill McKinley with 10 campaign signs, each 4 feet by 8 feet, valued at $80 each, as well as $100 in ticket purchases.

Shaool said the sign donation had nothing to do with his appointment.

"I would hate for someone to get the wrong impression from your story that this was like a purchased vote," he said.

Shaool said he had earned a sign company credit for which he had no use and offered it to McKinley, who was his vice principal when he went to E. Russell Hicks Middle School.

"I have a personal relationship with him and support him, and have a long history with that individual," he said.

Shaool said he wanted to join the planning commission as a way of getting more involved in the community and using his 18 years of land development experience to give back to the community.

"I've lived here for 37 years and just believe that I can do a good job and give some perspective for the position," he said.

Shaool said he put in an application about eight months ago, requesting that he be considered for openings on the Planning Commission, Economic Development Commission or Board of Zoning Appeals.

The county accepts applications for boards and commissions on a rolling basis, and the county commissioners consider those applicants as vacancies arise.

A list supplied to CPWC by County Attorney John Martirano listed 41 applicants interested in serving on the planning commission, with applications dating to 2008.

The commissioners said they interviewed five of those applicants in closed session before selecting Shaool.



The bigger picture



Among the five interviewed was former Washington County Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire.

Laird said Aleshire, who has a degree in planning and a decade of experience as a professional planner, would have been his No. 1 choice for the appointment.

"He definitely has plenty of experience and knowledge in the field, and he doesn't have a stake that I'm aware of," Laird said.

Aleshire said he was not disappointed he was passed over, but felt there were "obvious issues" with Shaool's selection.

"I think I'm more disappointed that there isn't an appropriate recognition of the prudence (required) in ensuring the separation of potential conflicts of interest," Aleshire said, adding that he is friends with Shaool and has nothing against him personally.

Joe Lane, a CPWC member who ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner last year, also was upset by the appointment.

"The planning commission's always been very developer-friendly and biased toward developers, but with Sassan, that's just striking, because he's a paying contributor to Bill McKinley, (and) he's obviously a developer with a clear, I would assume, financial interest in making sure rules in this county are favorable to developers," Lane said.

Shaool said he would not vote on projects in which he was involved. On other projects and more general issues, he said he thought he was capable of setting his own interests aside to consider the larger picture objectively.

"I just want to see Washington County be the best that it can be and develop it in an orderly, nice fashion," he said.

Critics of the appointment said recusal on individual projects did not satisfy their concerns.

"Is he actually going to be firm with developers in general, and set a precedent of making sure they do the best job ... or is he going to be lax so it won't be so tough for him when it's his turn to get something approved?" Laird asked.

Aleshire called recusal a "thin line," noting that the planning commission reviews guiding documents that affect zoning matters and land speculation.

Shaool said that while his status as a developer made him an "easy victim," he sees himself as a member of the community first and foremost.

"Just because you're in the industry doesn't make you less or more pro-development or not pro-development," he said. "I don't have any set agenda. Just like any other person, I see the project and try to give a good perspective and good feedback on any project on an individual basis."

Shaool said planning commission decisions are made within the confines of state guidelines and with input from planning staff and from other agencies.



One voice among seven



He also stressed that his is one voice among seven.

"This is not a one-person show," he said. "This is just another perspective for a balanced perspective."

The commissioners who voted in favor of Shaool's appointment said his development background would bring insight and balance to the commission.

"I believe that a developer on the planning commission makes sense," McKinley said. "To have their point of view there gives balance, just as a preservationist there gives balance."

McKinley said Shaool's contribution to his campaign did not influence his decision.

"By the time it came to selecting him, I had accumulated several thousand dollars from various people in all walks of life," McKinley said. "And if you do that, if you accept money, that's fine, but you certainly don't allow that to get in the way of your decision making. I mentioned that to a number of people that did give me campaign funds."

McKinley and Commissioners Ruth Anne Callaham, Jeffrey A. Cline and John F. Barr each stressed that Shaool would be only one voice among seven members.

They also noted that the other appointment to the planning commission approved the same day was Dennis Reeder, who comes from a farming background.

Barr said he thought a developer and a farmer would make the board more well-rounded.

"If nothing more, a developer's perspective, when you're talking stormwater management and land-use practices, he's been there, done that," Barr said. "... Or likewise, with the farmer position, the farmer can say, 'Hey, wait a minute, let's slow down here. This is prime agricultural land, and let's develop a rock park somewhere else where you can't grow seeds.'"

Baker said he voted against Shaool's appointment because of perception from the public that Shaool would be "only for development."

"I just wanted to avoid all of that," Baker said. "There were other applicants that would have done the job equally as well or better."

Baker declined to say who he would have preferred to appoint, saying that there were "many to choose from."

The planning commission meets the first Monday of each month at 7 p.m. at the County Administrative Annex at 80 W. Baltimore St.



How they voted:

Terry Baker - no

John F. Barr - yes

Ruth Anne Callaham - yes

Jeffrey A. Cline - yes

William B. McKinley - yes

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