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MSBA Land Institute Highlights Land Use-Related Cases Showing Continued Deference by Maryland Court of Appeals

Solar panels, microbreweries, and comprehensive rezoning efforts, such as the recent rewrite of the Zoning Ordinance of Prince George's County, were among the topics discussed by land use attorneys and practitioners at the Maryland State Bar Association's 2019 Land Use Institute this spring in Columbia, Maryland.

However, one session stood out, during which Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals judges each shared their thoughts on recent land use appellate decisions, and their recommendations for improving land use appellate briefs. The lively discussion addressed four recent cases where a land use-related decision or action by a local administrative body had been challenged.

Although the judges presented various opinions as to each case's significance, some common themes emerged. This article sheds light one such theme: deference to local decision-making.

State Talk

Attendees heard from a panel of Court of Appeals and Court of Special Appeals judges at the 2019 Maryland State Bar Association Land Use Institute. The lively discussion centered around four recent cases that involved land use, zoning, and/or planning actions by local authorities. The judges presented various opinions as to the each case's significance, but some common themes emerged, with one standing out: deference to local decision-making.

Local Power

Under Maryland's constitutional scheme, the Maryland Zoning and Planning Enabling Act grants local governments the authority to regulate land use matters. This intricate power can be exercised through a wide variety of government actions, such as the enactment of a zoning ordinance by the county legislature or the approval of a subdivision plan by the designated agency. A fundamental tenet of local zoning and planning authority is that it is territorial in nature; in other words, actions can only affect land within the county or municipality's jurisdiction. The localized nature of this police power suggests that a particular respect should exist between counties.

Recent cases, however, suggest that the state is exercising a similar respect for local authority.

Unsuccessful Challenges

In each of the following cases, appellants sought to upend a land use/zoning-related exercise of authority by a local government. While the facts of each case are dissimilar, the outcomes suggest a common theme: deference to local decision-making.

Clarksville Residents Against Mortuary Defense Fund, Inc., et al. v. Donaldson Properties, et al. (2017)

  • The Challenge: Community members contested Howard County Board of Appeals approval of conditional use application for a funeral home, arguing that certain adverse effects were not fully considered and warranted deeper analysis.
  • The Holding: The Board did not err in failing to address more general considerations contained in the Howard County Zoning Regulations.
  • The Rationale: A specific statutory provision predominates over a more general one, and if a conditional use applicant demonstrates compliance with prescribed standards and requirements outlined in a relevant statute or regulation, there is a presumption that the use supports the general welfare. Community members did not present probative evidence as to any unique adverse effects.

William A. Dabbs, Jr., et al. v. Anne Arundel County (2018)

  • The Challenge: Anne Arundel property owners brought a class action seeking to recover development impact fees after the County amended legislation and retroactively repealed right to obtain a refund. Taxpayers were entitled to fees after a six-year period if the County did not expend or restrict funds to a specific project.
  • The Holding: In addition to rejecting a takings argument, the Court held that the County had the authority to recalculate expenditures after the expiration of the six-year period, and retroactively repeal the right to a refund.
  • The Rationale: Development impact fees are imposed legislatively and set on a general, area-wide basis, and therefore cannot be considered a taking. Right to fee refund had not vested, and County's repeal of refund provision did not interfere with a substantive right.

Waterman Limited Partnership et al. v. Kathleen B. Boomer, et al. (2017)

  • The Challenge: Landowner, whose farmland was to be annexed into Queenstown and then rezoned, challenged newly elected county commissioners' rescission of outgoing commissioners' approval of resolution just two weeks prior.
  • The Holding: Newly elected county commissioners had common-law authority to rescind outgoing commissioners' approval of the rezoning.
  • The Rationale: Queen Anne's County, as a code home rule county under the Maryland Constitution, has the right to modify or repeal a local action, such as the approval of the annexation and rezoning at issue.

Lillian C. Blentlinger, LLC; William L. Blentlinger, LLC v. Cleanwater Lingamore, Inc., et al. (2017)

  • The Challenge: A Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreement (DRRA) with Frederick County required developer to provide more public benefits than would otherwise be required in the absence of a DRRA.
  • The Holding: DRRA was supported by sufficient consideration and was therefore valid.
  • The Rationale: Statutory language nor legislative history did not require that developer to confer enhanced pubic benefits. Term never used in relevant State Land Use Article.

The Takeaway

As demonstrated by these cases, the Court of Appeals is not desperate to "revise" or "correct" zoning and planning actions. Whether this level of deference will continue is difficult to predict, but one thing is certain: land use is a local business.

Chris Cohen is a land use attorney who helps developers, property owners, and institutional clients secure zoning approvals in Maryland and Washington, DC. For more information, contact him at 301-657-0743 or cscohen@lerchearly.com.

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