July 14, 2008

Dobbins Island Subject of Yet Another Lawsuit

By PAMELA WOOD Staff Writer

Magothy River advocates who want to preserve Dobbins Island are suing the island's owner, saying he broke off negotiations to sell the landmark to conservationists.

The lawsuit - similar to one thrown out by a judge a year ago - asks the county Circuit Court to declare that the popular island is accessible to the public and that a fence installed on the beach by island owner David Clickner to deter trespassers is, in fact, on public land.

And the lawsuit asks that no construction be allowed on the island until that matter is settled. The suit was sent to Mr. Clickner's lawyer on Thursday.

Magothy River Association President Paul Spadaro of Severna Park said his group was forced to bring another lawsuit, even after the first one was dismissed last year. Mr. Spadaro said Mr. Clickner went back on his promise to negotiate a possible sale of the island to the river group or another conservation group.

Those negotiations were started - and an uneasy truce was declared - after the Magothy River Association's first try at the lawsuit was thrown out by Circuit Court Judge Paul G. Goetzke in 2007.

"He has kind of refused to come to the table and negotiate," Mr. Spadaro said of Mr. Clickner.

Mr. Spadaro insists his group has a viable plan to buy and preserve the island, though he would not share details publicly.

Mr. Clickner bought the island for $850,000 in 2004. He has said that he got an offer for the island for $10 million, though he never offered details. He has been trying for several years to win approval to build a private home on the island.

Mr. Clickner's lawyer, Harry C. Blumenthal, said the Magothy River Association hasn't made a solid offer.

"I suspect they are filing more as a strategic move than anything else," Mr. Blumenthal said.

Though he hadn't reviewed the lawsuit yet, Mr. Blumenthal said the Magothy River Association has little legal ground to stand on.

"I don't think they're going to be able to prevail in this case as a matter of law or a matter of fact," he said.

Dobbins Island is a 7-acre spit of land in the middle of the Magothy River. It's covered in trees, with steep cliffs on the south side and a beach and sandbar on the north side.

For generations it has been a popular spot for boaters, who anchor there for swimming and exploring the island.

Mr. Clickner has been attempting to win special zoning approval to build a private home on the island. Though he's been battled time and again by the Magothy River Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, most zoning and legal rulings have gone in his favor.

In this week's lawsuit, the Magothy River Association and four individuals say that people have been using the island for so long with no interference from the owners that they have a de facto right to continue using it.

"We're not saying he doesn't own the property, but the public has gotten certain use We would like to keep this for the public. We're not trying to take it away from him," said Ann M. Fligsten, the river group's lawyer.

She said they'll have to prove that the public has had unfettered access to the island for more than 20 years.

The second argument in the lawsuit is something of a back-up, if the first argument fails.

The second count claims that a fence Mr. Clickner put on the island is in the wrong place. The public owns the waters of the state up to the mean high water line, and the lawsuit contends the fence is over that line and too close to the water.

No money or damages are sought in the lawsuit.

In addition to saying the lawsuit has little merit, Mr. Blumenthal said the Magothy River Association might be going "a little too far" with their tactics.

"Mr. Clickner believes that the Magothy River Association, with these various actions they are taking, and predicated upon the fact that they really want to buy the property, they're getting dangerously close to doing something that would be judiciously wrong," said Mr. Blumenthal, hinting that the plaintiffs may be abusing the legal process.

When asked if that meant Mr. Clickner was contemplating legal action against the river group, Mr. Blumenthal simply said: "I'm not prepared to say that."

Meanwhile, there will be a court hearing on Monday in another case related to Dobbins Island.

The Magothy River Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had tried to protest Mr. Clickner's zoning case before the county Board of Appeals, but the board ruled the groups didn't have sufficient legal standing. The environmental groups were booted from the case and are now asking a judge to reverse the decision.

1999: Brothers James and Edward Wilson buy Dobbins Island, Little Island and mainland property in Pasadena from heirs of the Dobbins family, for about $800,000.

2002: The Wilson brothers put Dobbins Island up for sale, initially asking for $1.75 million. They said they had tried to sell it before so it could become a park, but had no interest.

2004: The Magothy River Association starts studying the idea of buying the island to make it a park, but it's too late as David Clickner buys the island for $850,000. He immediately files for zoning variances to allow him to build a large home and pier on the island. Environmentalists quickly register their opposition.

July 2005: After multiple hearings, the county administrative hearing officer denies the variances.

August 2005: Mr. Clickner appeals the denial of his variances and puts "no trespassing" signs and caution tape on the island, saying: "The Clickners are not going to subsidize a public park and that's the bottom line."

March 2006: When Mr. Clickner shows up for his variance hearing at the Board of Appeals, he withdraws his case and announces that he'll start over and file new plans.

June 2006: Mr. Clickner gets a permit to put in a fence on the island and says he'll work with the Magothy River Association on the details of where to put it.

July 2006: The Magothy River Association claims the fence - wooden posts with chains strung between them - is in the wrong place, cutting off public access that is supposed to reach from the river to the mean high water line. The MRA threatens to file a lawsuit.

October 2006: Mr. Clickner files his new building plans and asks for variances from the administrative hearing officer.

December 2006: Mr. Clickner wins approval for his zoning variance and claims the island is now worth $10 million. Also, as promised, the Magothy River Association files its lawsuit over the disputed beach fence.

January 2007: The Magothy River Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation appeal the variances granted to Mr. Clickner to the county Board of Appeals.

April 2007: A judge throws out the Magothy River Association's lawsuit over access to the island and the fence. Also that month, Mr. Clickner agrees to delay a Board of Appeals hearing on the zoning variances so the two sides can talk about a possible sale of the island for the purpose of preservation.

June 2007: Mr. Clickner builds a pier on the island, frustrating environmentalists who say it was built over underwater grass beds.

August 2007: The county Board of Appeals rules that the Magothy River Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation don't have legal standing to challenge the zoning variances, because they don't meet criteria such as owning property in the vicinity of the island.

September 2007: The Magothy River Association organizes a floating protest on the river. Members gather signatures on a petition that protests development on the island.

October 2007: The county Board of Appeals listens to disputes over whether the pier is harmful to the environment or not.

November 2007: The Magothy River Association launches www.savedobbins.org and prints bumper stickers.

February 2008: Mr. Clickner unveils new plans for accessing the island, drawing a new path for reaching the top of the island where a house would be.

June 2008: Some 200 boats congregate around the island for a celebration marking 400 years since Capt. John Smith, an English settler, first explored and mapped the Chesapeake Bay, including the Magothy River.

July 2008: The Magothy River Association files a new version of its lawsuit over public access to the beach.

Monday: A county Circuit Court judge will hear arguments over whether or not the Magothy River Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have legal standing to challenge the zoning variances for the island. {Corrections:} {Status:}


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