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Rounds v. Maryland-National Capital Park

Court of Appeals of Maryland, Montgomery

January 29, 2015

WILLIAM ROUNDS, et al.
v.
MARYLAND-NATIONAL CAPITAL PARK AND PLANNING COMMISSION, et al.

Argued: November 12, 2014

Circuit Court for Montgomery County Case No. 350954

Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald McAuliffe, John F. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION

Greene, J.

At its core, this lawsuit concerns the existence of a historic "Farm Road, " the origins of which date back well over a century. While the history of Farm Road may lie in antiquity, it has become the focal point of much contention in the past decade. Indeed, Farm Road has been the subject of several lawsuits, in both the state and federal courts of Maryland, [1] an independent investigation, [2] and numerous news reports and articles.[3] The instant case, arising out of an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, requires this Court to consider the procedural difficulties which have otherwise prevented Petitioners from reaching some resolution on the merits of their suit.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Parties Involved

Petitioners, William Rounds, Marvin Gaither, Clifton Lee, James Bell, Bernice Martin, and Robert[4] and Michelle Awkard, filed suit in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County against Respondents, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (the "Commission"), Macris, Hendricks, and Glascock, P.A. ("MHG"), Douglas Riggs ("Riggs"), Warren Brown ("Brown"), Paul and Sara Arey (the "Areys"), Charles and Marilyn Mess (the "Messes"), Audrey Hill, and Milton Johnson, seeking declaratory, compensatory, statutory, and punitive relief. Petitioners request that this Court review the Circuit Court's decision, and the intermediate appellate court's judgment to affirm the dismissal of the Amended Complaint against the Respondents.

Factual Background

According to their Amended Complaint, Petitioners own properties located along Farm Road and a "10 Foot Right-of-Way" (collectively the "Farm Road"), which together provide the only means of access to Petitioners' properties. The properties are located on a tract of land in Sandy Spring, Maryland, bordered roughly by Goldmine Road to the north, Brooke Road to the south, and Chandlee Mill Road to the east. Petitioners allege that Farm Road runs north and south between Goldmine Road and Brooke Road through the center of the tract.

Petitioners aver that Respondent Brown began developing the "Dellabrooke" subdivision along with "Dellabrooke Forest" (collectively the "Dellabrooke subdivisions") on the northern end of Farm Road in 1994. During this development, Brown is alleged to have eliminated Farm Road's access to Goldmine Road in the north, as well as created a "fictional" conservation easement[5] to be included in subdivision plans that were to be submitted to the Commission. In preparation of the documents for submission, Brown retained MHG to complete land surveying work. Riggs was the MHG surveyor primarily responsible for this work. Acting at the direction of Brown, Riggs is alleged to have falsely omitted Farm Road from surveying documents as well as included a "fictional" conservation easement, which resulted in the Commission's deletion of Farm Road from state property maps. These documents–namely Plat 21707 for the Dellabrooke subdivision–were approved by the Commission on August 3, 2000.

The Areys purchased a portion of the fictional easement in order to develop the property in 2003. Prior to their purchase, the Areys allegedly worked with Brown in order to eliminate Farm Road's northern access to Goldmine Road as well as eliminate Farm Road in its entirety. In doing so the Areys would increase the value of the property they subsequently purchased from Brown.

Apart from the Commission's approval of the fraudulent Dellabrooke subdivision plans, Petitioners contend that the Commission has improperly refused to issue addresses to the Farm Road properties, despite having issued addresses to these properties previously.[6]Upon learning that their addresses were no longer recognized, Petitioners made several attempts to receive recognition of their addresses.[7] Mr. Rounds visited the Commission on November 7, 2007, after having been unable to meet with a member of the Commission the previous day. The Commission, however, refused to issue Petitioners addresses noting that there were errors on a 1966 Tax Map upon which Mr. Rounds had relied. The Commission directed Mr. Rounds to the Maryland Department of Planning ("MDP") in order to have the 1966 Tax Map corrected if he sought addresses. Following the Commission's suggestion, Mr. Rounds met with the MDP, which ultimately issued a letter to the Commission on November 14, 2007, confirming that the map had been corrected "to reflect the 'Farm Road' and parcel locations." Upon returning to the Commission, Mr. Rounds, accompanied by Mr. Gaither, was once again unable to obtain addresses. While Petitioners contend the Commission originally denied Petitioners' request on November 7, 2007, citing errors in the 1966 Tax Map, the Commission "now claims that it cannot issue [] addresses because [Petitioners] have not presented documentation proving their right to access their property." As part of the Commission's allegedly "ever-changing, ad hoc" reasoning, Petitioners contend that the Commission now explains that it is unable to issue addresses as a result of the neighboring landowners' failure to agree as to the existence or location of Farm Road.

In an effort to resolve the dispute, the then acting Montgomery County Executive issued a letter to the Commission urging the Commission to recognize Farm Road.[8] The letter states, in relevant part:

Over the past several months, I have received extensive correspondence and inquires about the Farm Road. . . . I hope that you are able to recognize the Farm Road as the private right-of-way that it seems to be and provide the property owners with their rightful recognition.

Petitioners allege that the Commission, citing to the reasons noted above, did not waver in its decision to refuse to issue Petitioners addresses.

Following their failed attempts at obtaining addresses, Petitioners determined the present suit was necessary and, in an effort to comply with the notice requirement of the Local Government Tort Claims Act ("LGTCA"), Md. Code (1987, 2013 Repl. Vol., 2014 Supp.), § 5-301 et seq. of the Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJP"), sent notice of their claim on June 10, 2008 and July 21, 2008.[9]

Procedural Background

On June 16, 2008, Petitioners filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. Subsequently, Petitioners' suit was dismissed on July 15, 2011 for failure to exhaust state remedies. Awkard v. Maryland-Nat'l Capital Park & Planning Comm'n, RWT-08-1562, 2011 WL 2896005 (D. Md. July 15, 2011).

Petitioners filed the instant suit in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County on August 11, 2011. The Amended Complaint, filed on October 17, 2011, includes the following claims as to the Commission: Count I (substantive due process violation), Count II (procedural due process violation), Count III (regulatory taking violation), and Count IV (declaratory judgment that the Commission exceeded its authority)[10] (collectively the "state constitutional counts"). As to all Respondents, Petitioners assert Counts V-XI (declaratory judgment that Petitioners have an easement to use Farm Road) (collectively the "easement claims"). With respect to the Commission, MHG, Riggs, Brown, and the Areys, the Amended Complaint contains Count XII (wrongful interference), and Count XIII (slander of title). The Respondents moved separately to dismiss the Amended Complaint. The Circuit Court granted the motions to dismiss as follows:

(1) Counts I-IV (the state constitutional counts), with prejudice, against the Commission for failure to give proper notice under the LGTCA;
(2) Counts V-XI (the easement claims), without prejudice, as to the Commission, the Areys, the Messes, Hill, and Johnson, for failure to join necessary parties;
(3) Counts V-XI (the easement claims), with prejudice, as to MHG, Riggs, and Brown, as none owned property adjacent to Farm Road and were, therefore, not interested parties; and
(4) Counts XII and XIII, with prejudice, as to the Commission, MHG, Riggs, Brown, and the Areys, as time-barred, or alternatively, with respects to MHG and Riggs, because no duty was owed to Petitioners.[11]

On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals upheld the Circuit Court's dismissal of the action. Rounds v. Md.-Nat'l Capital Park & Planning Comm'n, 214 Md.App. 90, 75 A.3d 987 (2013). We subsequently granted Petitioners' certiorari request, Rounds v. Md.-Nat'l Capital Park & Planning Comm'n, 436 Md. 327, 81 A.3d 457 (2013), to answer the following questions, which we have rephrased for clarity:

(1) Are Petitioners, in seeking redress from alleged local government violations of the state constitution, required to comply with the strict notice requirements of the LGTCA?
(2) Did the Court of Special Appeals properly uphold the trial court's dismissal of Petitioners' easement claims for a failure to join necessary parties, despite Petitioners' contention that "adjacent property owners have agreed not to contest the relief sought"?
(3) Did the Court of Special Appeals err in its factual determination that the Petitioners failed to file Counts XII and XIII within the Statute of Limitations?

For the reasons stated below, we answer each of the questions in the affirmative.

DISCUSSION

I. Standard of Review

This Court reviews the grant of a motion to dismiss for legal correctness. Patton v. Wells Fargo Financial Md., Inc., 437 Md. 83, 95, 85 A.3d 167, 173 (2014); Heavenly Days Crematorium, LLC v. Harris, Smariga & Assocs., Inc., 433 Md. 558, ...


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