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Citizen group challenges Shaool's place on planning commission

July 18, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY — An environmental group wants Washington County’s Ethics Commission to consider whether a conflict-of- interest policy should keep a developer off the planning commission.

In a June 30 letter to County Attorney John Martirano, members of Citizens for the Protection of Washington County allege that Sassan Shaool’s development ties could give him a motive to approve or reject certain projects.

CPWC also accused Shaool of living outside Washington County, which would disqualify him from serving on the planning commission — but at least one of the group’s main supporting claims is untrue.

CPWC alleged that Shaool testified during a 2005 county board of zoning appeals hearing that he “lived in Bethesda, Md., and only stayed in Hagerstown when he was working late.”

BZA records of that hearing show that it was Sassan Shaool’s cousin, David Shaool, who testified that he lives in Potomac, Md., and stays in Hagerstown when he has evening or morning meetings.

CPWC’s letter also alleged that Sassan Shaool isn’t registered to vote in Maryland, shedding no additional light on his address.

However, records at the Washington County Board of Elections show that Shaool has been registered to vote since 1996, lives on Shaool Place in Hagerstown and last voted in the November 2010 election.

Asked about the incorrect claims in the letter, CPWC President James Laird said Friday that he relied on the word of others about the BZA testimony and Shaool’s voter registration.

“Everybody’s wrong sometimes,” he said.

Contacted Friday, Shaool confirmed details about the incorrect allegations, but declined to comment on another CPWC claim — that Bethesda was listed as Shaool’s hometown on his Facebook page in April. He called that a private detail.

“I do have a residence here in Washington County,” he said, adding that even when he worked in New York, he stayed in Hagerstown the majority of each week.

Kirk Downey, an assistant county attorney for Washington County, declined to provide a copy of Shaool’s application to be on the planning commission or give out Shaool’s home address, since the Maryland Public Information Act allows them to be protected. However, Downey said Shaool listed 21742 in Hagerstown as his home ZIP code, matching the ZIP code on his voter registration form.

Martirano said he considered the residency allegation a matter for county staff to review, while the conflict-of- interest question would be directed to the Ethics Committee. A meeting for the committee hasn’t been scheduled.

The county’s Ethics Ordinance lists nine categories of prohibited conflicts of interest for officials and employees, such as having a direct financial interest in a county matter or holding “any outside employment relationship that would impair their impartiality or independence of judgment.”

CPWC’s letter about Shaool, who was appointed to the planning commission in February, says, “Prior knowledge is power and could give him an advantage that his fellow developers do not enjoy. Further, Mr. Shaool, being a developer himself, may not hold other developers to a high standard that the community would expect.”

But Shaool said suspicions of favoritism could apply to anyone, of any background.

A planning commission packed with people with any special interest, such as environmentalism or farming or banking, could have a certain slant, he said.

This isn’t the first time someone with development ties has been on the planning commission. One recent example is Donald Ardinger, who works for David Lyles Developers and chaired the county planning commission.

Shaool, the president of Washco Developments, a prominent local development company, said he can provide valuable insight into planning issues and will strive for high standards from developers.

But he said he will recuse himself from cases that could conflict with his development business — something he already has done once.

“My actions on the planning commission show I am responsible,” he said.

“That’s what they always tell us ...” Laird said. “We think developers should not serve on the planning commission.”

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