ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, MARYLAND, et al.
HARWOOD CIVIC ASSOCIATION, INC., et al.
Argued: 13 January 2015
Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No.: 02-C-11-164569
Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.
In Anne Arundel County, Maryland v. Steve Bell, __ Md. __, __ A.3d __(2015) (No. 29, September Term, 2014), filed immediately prior to the opinion in the present case, we concluded that the doctrine of property owner standing is not the appropriate test for a judicial challenge to a comprehensive zoning action. See id., Slip Op. at 1. Rather, plaintiffs wishing to challenge in Maryland courts the legislative process and final action adopting a comprehensive zoning are required to demonstrate taxpayer standing-the standing doctrine applicable to judicial challenges to legislative actions. Id. Accordingly, Bell answers the first two questions presented to us in this appeal. With that as a given, we proceed here to determine whether the Protestants in this matter alleged sufficiently a basis for their standing to challenge the adoption by the County Council for Anne Arundel County in 2011 of a comprehensive zoning ordinance for a large, different portion of Anne Arundel County than was involved in Bell.
I. Facts and Procedural History
Anne Arundel County (the "County"), a charter county, adopted in 2009 a comprehensive land use master plan, called a "General Development Plan" ("GDP"), for the entire County. During the run-up to that action, between 2007 and 2009, the County engaged in the process of preparing the GDP. The County's Office of Planning and Zoning (the "OPZ") prepared a draft of the GDP and submitted it to the County Council (the "Council") in July 2009. After hearings on the draft (including several amendments), the Council approved the final GDP by Bill 64-09.
Thereafter, beginning in late 2009, the County initiated a county-wide, systematic, and comprehensive review of zoning with a mind to implementing, as appropriate, the recommendations of the GDP through a series of comprehensive zoning bills. The County is comprised of seven Councilmanic Districts, which the OPZ combined into three groups for the purpose of its zoning review and the comprehensive zoning initiatives. One of these groups consisted of properties located in Councilmanic Districts VI and VII, which are together referred to colloquially as "South County."
Property owners desiring rezoning were given an opportunity to submit applications to the County. After posting online the received property owner applications, the OPZ evaluated the applications in light of the recommendations of the GDP, made a recommendation as to each application, and incorporated its various other recommendations in a draft of what became Bill 44-11. The County Planning Advisory Board reviewed the OPZ's recommendations and, after holding public hearings and receiving testimony and written statements from the public, made its recommendations to the County Executive.
In August 2011, the Council adopted Bill 44-11, with 40 amendments to the draft bill submitted by the OPZ. The County Executive signed Bill 44-11, but vetoed 16 of the amendments. The Council voted successfully to override ten of those vetoes. Bill 44-11 became "final" and effective on 21 October 2011.
On 6 October 2011, several non-profit community associations and individual property owners (collectively, the "Protestants" or, later in this opinion, "Respondents") filed in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment and Equitable Relief, in which they sought specifically a declaration that certain provisions of Bill 44-11 were void because assertedly they granted illegal spot zoning and were inconsistent with the recommendations of the GDP. In the Complaint, the individual property owners each alleged that they owned property and resided "near" or "adjacent to" one of the properties rezoned by Bill 44-11 and that "the value of [their] property and  enjoyment thereof will be substantially reduced as a result of this rezoning." Owners of some of the properties rezoned by Bill 44-11 (collectively, the "Defendants") filed motions to intervene, all of which were granted.
The County and several Defendants filed motions to dismiss the Complaint, arguing that the Protestants (1) failed to exhaust required administrative remedies; (2) failed to state a claim for a declaratory judgment; and (3) did not have standing. Protestants filed a memorandum in opposition, but, before the Circuit Court ruled on the motions to dismiss, the Protestants filed on 27 January 2012 an Amended Complaint in which they added additional plaintiffs and defendants. The other allegations of the Protestants, however, remained the same. Most of the Defendants and the County responded with another wave of motions to dismiss, reiterating their previous arguments. One of the intervening Defendants (Alva Reta Trahan, hereinafter "Ms. Trahan"), in her motion to dismiss, argued, inter alia, that the Protestants "do not allege facts sufficient to establish taxpayer standing, and should dismiss [most of the counts of the complaint] because [Protestants] do not allege facts sufficient to establish common law standing."Ms. Trahan argued that, as the Protestants had not alleged that Bill 44-11 would result in an increase in their taxes (and in fact alleged that Bill 44-11 would result in decreased property values), they could not satisfy the requirements of taxpayer standing. The rest of Ms. Trahan's arguments echoed those of the other Defendants.
Protestants submitted a memorandum in opposition to Ms. Trahan's motion to dismiss (hereinafter "May 2013 Memorandum"), in which they argued, among other things, that their allegations satisfied the requirements of Bryniarski v. Montgomery County Board of Appeals, 247 Md. 137, 230 A.2d 289 (1967). Furthermore, in a footnote, Protestants noted that they "do not claim to have standing as taxpayers or that any of the plaintiff organizations have standing except as derivatively through their members." (emphasis added).
Following a hearing, the Circuit Court issued an Opinion and Order on 27 March 2012, dismissing the Protestants' Amended Complaint, but granting leave to amend within 30 days. The trial judge noted, in a section entitled "Disputed Legal Issues": "Defendants claim that Plaintiffs lack both taxpayer and common-law standing. The Plaintiffs argue in response that their Complaint alleges harm to several individual plaintiffs sufficient to give them standing to bring this action. . . ." In a later footnote, the trial judge recognized that Protestants conceded in the May 2013 Memorandum that they did not claim to have taxpayer standing, and proceeded to consider whether they satisfied property owner standing. Relying on Bryniarski for the proposition that a plaintiff seeking a declaratory judgment that a zoning ordinance is unlawful must allege special harm with "definite" allegations and "competent evidence, " see Bryniarski, 247 Md. at 144, 230 A.2d at 294, the Circuit Court concluded that all Protestants lacked standing. The Circuit Court reasoned that "[t]he mere fact that several [Protestants] own property adjacent to property rezoned by Bill 44-11 does not by itself meet the burden of proving special damage by competent evidence required in cases seeking a declaratory judgment." The court's reasoning continued that the Protestants' allegations of ...