Zoning attorney's footnotes come with a splash of humor

Attorney’s footnotes to his legal conclusions mix philosophy and dry wit

By Bill Turque
The Washington Post

ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) — The 34-page memo, which deals in part with exempting, or “grandfathering,” properties from new zoning regulations, drones on in typical bureaucratic fashion. Until Footnote 6.

“Talmudic scholars would be challenged to discern the comprehensive meaning of all grandfathering provisions in (the proposal) as introduced,” zoning attorney Jeffrey Zyontz wrote to the Montgomery County Council in June 2013. “In accord with Talmudic tradition, any answer to a question on grandfathering will undoubtedly lead to another question.”

It was a typical digression for Zyontz, the council’s go-to adviser on a critical but often arcane subject not known as a wellspring of whimsy.

He underscores his legal conclusions with footnotes that mix philosophy and humor, drawing on George Bernard Shaw to poke at a too-vague economic analysis (“If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion”) and Kahlil Gibran when he believes a developer has overstated the cost of a project (“Exaggeration is truth that has lost its temper”).

“I’m a bureaucrat. I recognize that,” Zyontz, 66, said one recent afternoon in his small office on the fifth floor of the County Council building in Rockville. “I work to help the County Council make rational decisions. That is my real job. And if humor helps me accomplish that goal, then so be it.”

His desk was in scholarly disarray, covered with loose-leaf binders and memos on what can be built where in the 500-square-mile county.

With more than 40 years in land-use planning, Zyontz, who makes $154,000 a year, seems to still enjoy the push and pull of such decisions. In his writings, he displays a dry wit and refers to himself in the third person, as “Staff.”

“A deep emotional attachment to chickens was also expressed in testimony,” he wrote about a public hearing on whether to retain requirements for chicken coops, which included a 100-foot setback from neighboring homes.

“Staff notes that there was no testimony concerning any emotional attachment to land-use attorneys, yet attorneys are allowed within 100 feet of neighboring houses.” The 100-foot rule stayed in effect.

In declining a landowner’s request for a definition of open space, Zyontz footnoted: “Not everything is easily defined. When asked to define herself, Britney Spears said, ‘I don’t like defining myself, I just am.’ Staff does not intend to either define Ms. Spears or to create a new definition for open space.”

Zyontz’s light touch was put to the test during the recent revision of the county zoning code, a five-year project. He started each planning committee session with a “This Day in History” reference that highlighted a watershed moment that had unfolded in less time than the code revision.

“One this day in 1501, Michelangelo started work on his statue of David,” he said on Sept. 12, 2013.

“How long did it take?” asked council member Nancy Floreen (D- At Large), a frequent straight woman for his routines.

“Completed in 1504,” Zyontz announced. “At least two years faster than the zoning rewrite.”

Floreen said Zyontz’s antic style can obscure his skill as a lawyer. For example, the code revision, intended to curb sprawl by guiding new development into more-established areas, involved sorting through some 400 land-use categories. Floreen said it could have turned into a hopeless slog.

“It’s been a real gift to have him,” she said. “This is unbelievably intricate stuff, and he has everyone’s confidence.”

Earlier this year, Zyontz led county legislative aides in a briefing titled “Subdivision 101,” using different types of headwear to illustrate the history of private land ownership. There was a crown (for William the Conqueror, who claimed the right to own and subdivide land), a white wig (for George Calvert, the first European owner of Maryland), a tri-corner Colonial hat (to symbolize the U.S. Constitution), and so on.

“Some people don’t bring their whole selves to work, but Jeff does,” said Tedi Osias, a legislative aide to Floreen.

The son of a furniture salesman, born in Newark and raised in suburban West Caldwell, N.J., Zyontz didn’t seriously consider planning as a career until his senior year at American University, when he met Royce Hanson, a professor serving the first of two stints as chair of the Montgomery Planning Board. After a master’s in planning at Rutgers and a law degree from Washington College, he landed his first job, as a researcher for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

He spent 31 years there, rising to be the chief planner for Montgomery County, before joining the staff of the council in 2006. He’s had a hand in virtually every consequential land-use decision of the period, including the Intercounty Connector, creation of the 90,000-acre Agricultural Reserve and the rebirth of downtown Silver Spring.

His career, he says, has taught him the finite nature of what humanity puts on land, which is why he recommended against a 2013 proposal to expand the use of pervious pavement to absorb more storm runoff. This time, he cited a “Saturday Night Live” character made famous by Gilda Radner.

“There is one consistent attribute of human-made structures; they fail over time.” Zyontz wrote in Footnote 16. “In the immortal words of Roseanne Roseannadanna, ‘It’s always something.’ If it’s not poor maintenance, it’s sand applied for winter traction; if it’s not the hundred-year storm once every 5 years, it’s compaction of the subsurface. If it’s not an oil spill, it’s the crushing force of overweight vehicles.”

The council agreed with him, and the proposal was rejected.

Zyontz lives in Rockville with his wife, Wendy, a recently retired optometrist. He could retire at any time but says he’s in no hurry and would like to stay as long as he is useful. Which leads him to one final quip:
“If you’re sick and get a get-well card from the council, you don’t want it to say: ‘The council wishes you a speedy recovery by a vote of 5 to 4.’?”