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Anne Arundel County v. Bell

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 21, 2015

STEVE BELL, et al.

Argued: 5 December 2014

Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No.: C-11-163163

Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.


Harrell, J.

Respondents in this matter, as plaintiffs, challenged in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County the adoption in 2011 by the County Council for Anne Arundel County of a comprehensive zoning ordinance for a large portion of Anne Arundel County. In order to maintain their litigation, they must demonstrate appropriate standing to do so. Respondents assert that property owner standing principles apply to a judicial challenge to comprehensive zoning legislation and that they satisfied those principles. We disagree. Plaintiffs wishing to challenge in Maryland courts the legislative action adopting a comprehensive zoning are required to demonstrate taxpayer standing. Respondents do not allege facts sufficient to meet the correct standing requirement. Thus, the dismissal by the Circuit Court of the two suits in the present case was correct. The contrary position taken by the Court of Special Appeals in this case must be reversed.

I. Statement of the Case

Bill 12-11, a comprehensive zoning ordinance adopted in 2011 by the County Council for Anne Arundel County ("the County"), embraced Councilmanic Districts I and IV, comprising approximately 59, 045 individual parcels or lots totaling 4, 265 acres in area. The two Districts include most of the property in the vicinity of the Baltimore/Washington International/Thurgood Marshall Airport and all of the property along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway corridor in Anne Arundel County. Of those 59, 045 individual parcels or lots, Bill 12-11 changed the previous zoning classifications of 264 parcels or lots and maintained essentially the pre-existing zoning of the rest. Bill 12-11 was the culmination by local government of a 5-year comprehensive and thorough consideration of the zoning in the Districts.

Bill 12-11 was challenged by various Anne Arundel County property owners and community associations ("the Citizens"), [1] who objected to some, but not all, of the rezonings. Two suits were filed in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, which were consolidated ultimately. Titled In the Matter of Steve Bell, et al., C-11-161930, the Citizens filed on 14 June 2011 an Amended Petition for Judicial Review or, in the Alternative, for a Writ of Administrative Mandamus ("Amended Petition for Judicial Review"). Styled as Steve Bell, et al. v. Anne Arundel County, Maryland, C-11-163163, the Citizens filed on 5 August 2011 a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment, in which they challenged the rezoning of multiple parcels of land, alleging that the County engaged in illegal spot and contract zoning with regard to those rezonings and failed to provide the public with the required notice of the proposed zoning changes.[2] Several Anne Arundel County property owners and ground leaseholders whose properties had been rezoned to classifications desired by them (collectively, with the County, referred to as "Petitioners")[3] intervened to protect their interests. Petitioners moved to dismiss the Citizens' suit, arguing, inter alia, [4] that the Citizens lacked standing. Following a hearing, the Circuit Court granted Petitioners' motion to dismiss, concluding that the Citizens lacked standing because they failed to meet the burden of proving special aggrievement. Suggesting that being an adjoining, confronting, or nearby property owner is "[o]ne means of establishing a prima facie case of aggrievement in Maryland, " the trial court emphasized that it could not find any reported Maryland cases in which "a party in a declaratory judgment action has been found to have prima facie aggrievement or standing to challenge comprehensive rezoning legislation based on ownership of property nearby or in proximity to property that was rezoned." Therefore, the Circuit Court concluded that the Citizens did not have prima facie standing to challenge Bill 12-11 through a declaratory judgment action. The hearing court also concluded that the Citizens' claims that the select rezonings would result in increases in traffic, decreases in property values, and changes in the character of the neighborhoods were insufficient to show special aggrievement because the court "fail[ed] to find that [the Citizens'] interests in the matter [were] any different than the interests of a member of the general public."

On direct appeal, the Court of Special Appeals disagreed with the Circuit Court, concluding that the Citizens enjoyed property owner standing to challenge Bill 12-11. Bell v. Anne Arundel County, 215 Md.App. 161, 79 A.3d 976 (2013). The Court of Special Appeals, relying on 120 W. Fayette St., LLLP v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 407 Md. 253, 964 A.2d 662 (2009) ["Superblock I"] and Long Green Valley Association v. Bellevale Farms, Inc., 205 Md.App. 636, 46 A.3d 473, aff'd on other grounds, 432 Md. 292, 68 A.3d 843 (2013), rejected the County's contention that the prima facie aggrievement standard only applies to challenges to administrative land use decisions, concluding instead that it also applies to comprehensive zonings like Bill 12-11. Bell, 215 Md.App. at 180, 79 A.3d at 987; see id. at 179, 79 A.3d at 987 ("[W]e perceive no logical or practical reason why we should remove this case from the application of the principles espoused in [Superblock I] and Long Green Valley simply because [protestants] have challenged a comprehensive zoning ordinance, as opposed to another form of land use regulation or governmentally-imposed development control."). The intermediate appellate court determined that the property owner prima facie standard of presumed special aggrievement applies to judicial challenges to comprehensive zoning legislative actions, as well as quasi-judicial and other administrative land use actions generally.

The intermediate appellate court applied, in two stages, the prima facie aggrievement standard to Parcel 114 on Tax Map 37 ("Parcel 114"), which was reclassified from a lower density residential zone to one allowing commercial offices and similar uses. First, the court concluded that properties belonging to two of the Citizens (William Chapin and Steve Bell) were close enough by distance to support "almost prima facie aggrievement" because they were located within approximately 500 feet of Parcel 114. Bell, 215 Md.App. at 184, 79 A.3d at 989–90. Second, the court examined whether the Citizens' "personal or property rights ha[d] been specially and adversely affected by the rezoning in a way different from those of the general public-what the Ray court called 'plus factors.'" Bell, 215 Md.App. at 183, 79 A.3d at 989 (citing Ray v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 430 Md. 74, 85, 59 A.3d 545, 551–52 (2013)). Acknowledging that an increase in traffic, by itself, is insufficient to establish property owner standing, the court discussed the difference between an injury based on noise from increased traffic and an injury based on increased traffic in general, and concluded ultimately that the noise emanating from projected increased traffic and increased commercial activity was sufficient to show that the Citizens were specially aggrieved. Bell, 215 Md.App. at 186, 79 A.3d at 991.

Because that court concluded that at least one of the Citizens was prima facie aggrieved, based solely on the proximity of his/her property to a single property rezoned in Bill 12-11, all of the Citizens had standing with respect to the select parcels rezoned in Bill 12-11. See Bell, 215 Md.App. at 180–81, 79 A.3d at 987–88; see State Center, LLC v. Lexington Charles Ltd. P'ship, 438 Md. 451, 550, 92 A.3d 400, 458 (2014) (quoting Board of Supervisors of Elections v. Smallwood, 327 Md. 220, 233 n.7, 608 A.2d 1222, 1228 n.7 (1992) (quoting Board of License Commissioners v. Haberlin, 320 Md. 399, 404, 578 A.2d 215, 217 (1990) ("[W]here there exists a party having standing to bring an action or take an appeal, we shall not ordinarily inquire as to whether another party on the same side also has standing."))). The Court of Special Appeals vacated the judgment of the Circuit Court and remanded the case for further proceedings. Bell, 215 Md.App. at 192–93, 79 A.3d at 994–95.

Petitioners, in their successful petition for a writ of certiorari to us, asked us to consider three questions:

1. Whether the prima facie aggrievement standard established in [Bryniarski v. Montgomery County Board of Appeals, 247 Md. 137, 230 A.2d 294 (1967)] should be expanded beyond challenges to administrative land use decisions to include challenges to comprehensive zoning?
2. Whether the "almost prima facie" standard as established in [Ray v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 430 Md. 74, 59 A.3d 545 (2013)] should be expanded beyond challenges to administrative land use decisions to include challenges to comprehensive zoning?
3. Whether noise from a predicted increase in traffic constitutes "special damages"?

Anne Arundel County v. Bell, 437 Md. 422, 86 A.3d 1274 (2014) (granting certiorari). We answer the first two questions in the negative. Accordingly, no answer to the third question is necessary.

The first two questions are, at their core, one and the same: are the principles of property owner standing applicable to plaintiffs maintaining a judicial challenge to the adoption of a comprehensive zoning ordinance, as has been the standard by which judicial challenges to quasi-judicial and other administrative "land use" actions have been measured? We conclude that extending property owner standing to challenges to comprehensive zoning legislative actions is contrary to our case law, and unprudential as well. The principles underlying property owner standing, heretofore applied to judicial review actions and other modalities of judicial challenges to quasi-judicial and other administrative land use decisions, should not be extended to apply to challenges to comprehensive zoning legislative actions. Comprehensive zoning on the one hand, and quasi-judicial or administrative land use actions on the other, are not similar sufficiently in process or justification to warrant extension by analogy of property owner standing principles from the latter to the former. Rather, taxpayer standing is the correct standing doctrine which Respondents/Plaintiffs must satisfy before they may be allowed to maintain a judicial challenge to comprehensive zoning legislation.[5]

II. Standard of Review

We will treat the Circuit Court's grant of the County's motions to dismiss as a grant of summary judgment because the trial court considered materials (specifically, affidavits) outside the complaints (i.e., the complaints and documents attached thereto). See Maryland Rule 2-322(c); see also Ray, 430 Md. at 91, 59 A.3d at 555 (treating a motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment because the trial court considered materials outside of the pleadings); Converge Services Group, LLC v. Curran, 383 Md. 462, 475, 860 A.2d 871, 879 (2004) (noting that the "universe of 'facts' pertinent to the court's analysis of the motion [to dismiss] are limited generally to the four corners of the complaint and its incorporated supporting exhibits, if any"). "Whether summary judgment as granted properly is a question of law. The standard of review is de novo . . . ." Lightolier, A Division of Genlyte Thomas Group v. Hoon, 387 Md. 539, 551, 876 A.2d 100, 108 (2005).

III. Quasi-Judicial and Administrative Land Use Decisions Versus Comprehensive Zoning:

A Comparison

The zoning process, broadly viewed, is designed to implement growth

in a manner that allows for the expansion of economic activities and opportunities in the area or region for the benefit of its residents, while at the same time attempting to maintain the quality of life of the region, all without unduly disturbing the reasonable expectations of the citizenry as to the permissible uses they may make of real property.

Mayor and Council of Rockville v. Rylyns Enterprises, Inc., 372 Md. 514, 532, 814 A.2d 469, 479 (2002). Decisions whether to zone or rezone properties are made by local zoning authorities in Maryland through three primary processes: establishment of original zoning through adoption of a zoning map, comprehensive rezoning of substantial areas of the jurisdiction through a legislative-type process initiated by the local government, and piecemeal rezoning of individual properties (by application of the owner or contract purchaser) through a quasi-judicial process. See id. Original and comprehensive zoning are accomplished solely through legislative processes culminating in legislative acts, while piecemeal rezoning is achieved through a quasi-judicial process leading to a technical legislative act. Id.

A. Comprehensive Zoning

Comprehensive zoning "is fundamentally legislative and no significant quasi-judicial function is involved." Montgomery County v. Woodward & Lothrop, Inc., 280 Md. 686, 713, 376 A.2d 483, 498 (1977), see Rylyns Enterprises, 372 Md. at 532, 814 A.2d at 479. As comprehensive zoning encompasses a large geographical area, the process is initiated generally by a local government, rather than by a property owner or owners. Rylyns Enterprises, 372 Md. at 535, 814 A.2d at 481. When local zoning authorities devise comprehensive zoning ordinances, the "focus is not on a single piece of property, but rather on a considerable number of properties as they relate to each other and to the surrounding area." Woodward & Lothrop, 280 Md. at 713, 376 A.2d at 498. These "are not adjudicative determinations affecting one property owned by one person, but instead are classically legislative determinations designed to affect local and regional needs and all property owners within the planning area." Id. (emphasis added). During the comprehensive zoning process, the local zoning authority (which typically is comprised of local legislators wearing perhaps a different governmental "hat" when acting as the local zoning body) considers broad policy considerations, including "whether the comprehensive rezoning takes into account future public needs and purposes; whether it is designed to provide an adequate potential for orderly growth in the future and to satisfy local and regional needs; and ultimately whether it bears the requisite relationship to the public health, safety and general welfare." Id. Comprehensive rezonings "are limited only by the general boundaries of . . . appropriate procedural and due process considerations."

Rylyns Enterprises, 372 Md. at 533, 814 A.2d at 480 (quoting White v. Spring, 109 Md.App. 692, 696–97, 675 A.2d 1023, 1025 (1996)). In order for an act of zoning to "qualify as proper comprehensive zoning" it must:

1) cover a substantial area; 2) be the product of careful study and consideration; 3) control and direct the use of land and development according to present and planned future conditions, consistent with the public interest; and, 4) set forth and regulate all permitted land uses in all or substantially all of a given political subdivision, though it need not zone or rezone all of the land in the jurisdiction.

Rylyns Enterprises, 372 Md. at 535, 814 A.2d at 481. Once an act of comprehensive zoning is enacted properly, the "motives or wisdom of the legislative body" in adopting the zoning "enjoy a strong presumption of correctness and validity" and are not changed easily.[6] Rylyns Enterprises, 372 Md. at 535–36, 814 A.2d at 481.

B. Quasi-Judicial Processes and Administrative Land Use Actions

Administrative land use actions, whether reached via quasi-judicial or executive processes, encompass a wide variety of things, including piecemeal rezonings, special exceptions, variances, and nonconforming uses, whether granted by local administrative hearing officers, boards of appeal, or the local legislative body by donning its land use authority "hat";[7] as well as licenses and permits issued by state and local administrative agencies.

Original or comprehensive zoning may be changed only by a subsequent comprehensive zoning or by a subsequent piecemeal zoning. Rylyns Enterprises, 372 Md. at 538, 814 A.2d at 483. Piecemeal zoning is accomplished by local zoning authorities through a quasi-judicial process. Anderson House, LLC v. Major of Rockville, 402 Md. 689, 708 n.17, 939 A.2d 116, 127 n.17 (2008). Notably, the act or decision reached through this quasi-judicial process is "on individual, as opposed to general, grounds, and scrutinizes a single property." Id. (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks omitted). The piecemeal zoning process is decidedly un-legislative in nature, except at the end: it includes typically a deliberative fact-finding process, which entails the holding of at least one evidentiary hearing (generally), factual and opinion testimony, documentary evidence, cross-examination of the witnesses, and objections to the weighing of evidence. See id. This process results in a particularized set of written findings of fact and conclusions of law as to the zoning proposal for the parcel or assemblage in question. In piecemeal zoning applications seeking Euclidian zones, including those involving potential conditional zoning (where lawful to do so), the ultimate task of the zoning authority is to "make a factual determination, based on the evidence of record, as to whether there has been a change in the physical character of the neighborhood where the property is located or a mistake was made in the original zoning." Woodward & Lothrop, 280 Md. at 712–13, 376 A.2d at 498; see Rylyns Enterprises, 372 Md. at 539, 814 A.2d at 483–84. This rule, referred to as the "change-mistake rule, " does not apply to changes in zoning made in a comprehensive zoning or the piecemeal grant of a planned unit development (or "floating zone"). Rylyns Enterprises, 372 Md. at 539, 814 A.2d at 483–84. The grant of a floating zone requires usually written findings of fact and conclusions of law explicating (in terms of evidence or record) how the application conforms to the statutory pre-requisites for the particular zone. See Aubinoe v. Lewis, 250 Md. 645, 653, 244 A.2d 879, 884 (1968).

Bearing in mind these differences between comprehensive zoning and administrative land use decisions and the processes through which they are reached, we turn now to examine the two standing doctrines available to complainants by which they might maintain suits regarding land use actions generally: the doctrines of property owner standing and taxpayer standing. As we shall demonstrate, property owner standing is reserved for challenges to land use decisions reached through quasi-judicial or administrative/executive processes, and taxpayer standing is the appropriate doctrine applied to available modalities of judicial challenges to land use actions reached via a purely legislative process, such as comprehensive zoning actions.

IV. The "Aggrievement Standards" of Property Owner Standing

Taxpayer and property owner standing provide the "cause of action" standing sufficient for justiciability: "when asserted properly, [the doctrines] provide both the cause of action (or claim) and the right of the individual to assert the claim in the judicial forum." State Center, LLC v. Lexington Charles Ltd. P'ship, 438 Md. 451, 517–18, 92 A.3d 400, 439 (2014). The "principles of property owner standing in Maryland stem from the State's statutory zoning laws, which grant an 'aggrieved person' the right to challenge many zoning actions." State Center, 438 Md. at 522–23, 92 A.3d at 442. The property owner standing doctrine recognizes that certain owners of real property may be "'specially harmed' by a decision or action (usually related to land use) in a manner different from the general public." State Center, 438 Md. at 519, 92 A.3d at 440. Unless a complainant alleges a sufficient "special aggrievement, " or is presumed to be aggrieved specially because of the subject property's location, he, she, or it has no standing to challenge the act but is instead "merely 'generally aggrieved, ' in a similar manner as the rest of the public." State Center, 438 Md. at 521, 92 A.3d at 441.

We shall explain in greater depth the requirements of the property owner standing doctrine in Part IV.A of this opinion. Although we noted in 2014 in State Center that principles of zoning laws "permit eligible plaintiffs to invoke the jurisdiction of the courts to challenge a greater variety of 'land use decisions' and actions than thought to be the case previously, " State Center, 438 Md. at 523, 92 A.3d at 442, this was not an invitation to hyper-extend property owner standing principles, but merely to recognize an evolving understanding of what may be deemed an administrative or executive land use decision or action, beyond the traditional notion of the grant of a piecemeal application for rezoning, special exception, or the like. We elaborate on the outer limits of the variety of land use decisions to which property owner ...

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