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Clayland Farm Enterprises, LLC v. Talbot County

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 29, 2019

TALBOT COUNTY, MARYLAND, et al., Defendants.


          George L. Russell, III, United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Clayland Farm Enterprises, LLC's (“Clayland”) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 148) and Defendants Talbot County (the “County”), Talbot County Planning and Zoning Commission, Talbot County Department of Public Works Advisory Board (the “Advisory Board”), Thomas Hughes, Michael Sullivan, John Wolfe, and Jack Fisher's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 156). This local zoning dispute arises out of three Talbot County Bills-Bill Nos. 1214, 1257, and 1229-two of which functioned as moratoria, and one of which adopted a tier map aimed at minimizing the environmental impacts of subdivision and sewer system expansion. The Motions are ripe for disposition, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will deny Clayland's Motion and grant in part and deny as moot in part Defendants' Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         A. Factual Background

         1. The Property

         Clayland owns a 106.37-acre, waterfront property in the Village of Royal Oak in Talbot County, Maryland (the “Property”). (Compl. ¶ 28, ECF No. 2; Pl.'s Mot. Partial Summ. J. [“Pl.'s Mot.”] Ex. 1 [“Map”], ECF No. 148-3). The Property consists of seven smaller plots and one larger plot. (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. [“Defs.' Mot.”] Ex. 19 [“Defs.' Appraisal Report”] at 1, ECF No. 156-21; see also Defs.' Mot. Ex. 18 [“Pl.'s Appraisal Report”] at 39, ECF No. 158-21).[2] The seven smaller plots are 2.019 acres, 2.008 acres, 2.005 acres, 3.243 acres, 3.905 acres, 2.371 acres, and 2.271 acres, respectively. (Defs.' Appraisal Report at 1). The larger remainder plot is 88.548 acres. (Id.).

         The Camper family acquired the Property in 1969. (Pl.'s Appraisal Report at 4). Since then, the Property has been used for farming and for leasing residential rental properties. (Bryan Dep. 25:9-14; 52:4-15; 74:12-20, Feb. 15, 2018, ECF No. 158-7). In 1991, the Camper family received approval to build a six-lot development called “Darby Farm.” (See Pl.'s Appraisal Report at 1; Defs.' Appraisal Report at ii, 22, 31).

         In January 2002, Mrs. Camper passed away and left the Property to her children, Jeanne Bryan and John Camper, III (collectively, “the Campers”).[3] (Pl.'s Appraisal Report at 4). The same month, the Campers elected to value the Property under Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) Special Use Valuation 2032A for the purposes of estate tax assessment.[4](Id.). As a result, the IRS placed a $500, 000.00 tax lien on the Property in exchange for the Campers agreeing to continue the agricultural use of the Property for ten years. (Id.). The IRS released the tax lien in January 2012. (Id. at 4, 105).

         Also in 2002, the Campers established Clayland Farm Enterprises, LLC to oversee the Property. (Id. at 4). Clayland earns approximately $5, 000.00 to $10, 000.00 per year through sharecropping. (Bryan Dep. 144:14-146:17). Clayland also leases three residential properties on the Property, as well as an eight-acre nursery. (Id. 76:1-2; 149:19-150:2). Between 2006 and 2018, the rental properties have generated monthly rents of $1, 050.00 to $1, 340.00. (Id. 150:3-11). Clayland leases the nursery to a relative for $1.00 per year.[5](Id. 149:10-13).

         Prior to the inception of this suit, the Property was zoned as a “Village Center” zoning district; the Property was and still is designated an S-1 sewer service area. (Compl. ¶¶ 29, 36; Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 2, ECF No. 148-4; Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 7, ECF No. 149-1). Under Talbot County's 2005 Comprehensive Plan, which was in place at the start of this litigation, Village Center zoning districts were defined as areas of “low or moderate intensity residential communities, ” and were “the preferred location for single and multi-family residential development.” (Compl. ¶¶ 30, 33). S-1 sewer service areas are “‘served or to be served' by a system of sanitary sewer connected to a treatment plant.” (Id. ¶ 36 (citing COMAR With its Village Center and S-1 zoning, the Property could be developed for residential housing. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 33, 36). Clayland has not, however, taken any steps to begin developing the Property, including the approved development, Darby Farm.

         2. Talbot County Planning & Zoning

         a. Resolution 180

         On March 22, 2011, Talbot County adopted Resolution 180, which became effective on May 24, 2011. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 16 [“Resolution 180”] at 7, ECF No. 149-10; see also Defs.' Resp. Opp'n Pl.'s Partial Mot. Summ. J. [“Defs.' Opp'n”] Ex. 11, ECF No. 158-12).

         Resolution 180 implemented a nine-month moratorium on “processing, consideration, review, or approval of any application” for a new subdivision received after March 22, 2011, in six Villages in Talbot County, including Royal Oak, the Village where the Property is located. (Resolution 180 at 2). The County enacted Resolution 180 to, among other things, allow sufficient time to “make the comprehensive sewer plan consistent with the comprehensive land-use plan.” (Id. at 6). On January 10, 2012, the County extended Resolution 180 for an additional seventy days. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 20 [“Resolution 191”], ECF No. 149-14).

         b. Bill No. 1229

         In 2012, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act (the “Septics Law”), which aimed to minimize the environmental impact of large subdivisions and the concomitant expansion of septic systems. (Compl. ¶ 8); Md. Code Ann., Land Use [“LU”] § 1-508 (West 2019). The Septics Law established a “four tier map designation system, ” (Compl. ¶ 9), and required local jurisdictions to adopt corollary growth tier maps, (id. ¶ 13). Pursuant to this mandate, Talbot County adopted Bill No. 1229 on December 11, 2012. (Id. ¶ 95; Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 24 [“Bill 1229”], ECF No. 150-3). Bill No. 1229 “classif[ied] land in the [C]ounty into one of seven tier classifications that establish[ed] the type of subdivision and the kind of wastewater treatment system planned for each subdivision type.” (Compl. ¶ 83; Bill 1229 at 3-5). As a result, six acres of the Property were designated Tier III.B, and the remaining acres were designated Tier IV. (Compl. ¶ 84).[6]

         c. Comprehensive Plan Review

         In 2013, the Maryland General Assembly amended laws regarding the timing of local planning commissions' review, and revision or amendment of, county comprehensive plans. 2013 Md. Laws ch. 520, 1; see also LU § 1-416. Prior to this amendment, local jurisdictions were required to review their comprehensive plans at least once every six years. 2012 Md. Laws ch. 426, 1. After this amendment, local jurisdictions were required to review their comprehensive plans at least once every ten years. See LU § 1-416. Talbot County initially anticipated revising its 2005 Comprehensive Plan in 2011. (Defs.' Suppl. Answer Interrogs. 4, ECF No. 158-5). As a result of the change in state law, however, Talbot County changed its target date for enacting a revised comprehensive plan to 2015. (Id.).

         d. Bill Nos. 1214 & 1257

         On February 28, 2012, prior to the change in state law regarding the frequency of comprehensive plan review, Talbot County adopted Bill No. 1214. (Compl. ¶ 70; Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 22 [“Bill 1214”], ECF No. 150-1). Bill No. 1214 applied to all Village Center zoning districts within the County's twenty-two Villages. (Bill 1214 at 2). It reduced the permissible density of properties in Village Center zoning districts from four dwellings per acre to one dwelling per two acres, increased the minimum lot size from 10, 000 square feet to one acre, and prohibited subdividing any existing parcel into more than one additional lot. (Bill 1214 at 2; Compl. ¶ 62). Bill No. 1214 was originally drafted to expire in three years but was subsequently amended to expire two years after its enactment. (Bill 1214 at 4; Compl. ¶¶ 63, 68).

         On February 25, 2014, Talbot County approved Bill No. 1257. (Compl. ¶ 78; Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 28 [“Bill 1257”], ECF No. 150-7). Bill No. 1257 extended Bill No. 1214's restrictions until the “adoption of comprehensive rezoning and land use regulations regarding density in the [Village Center], VC1, and VC2 zoning districts pursuant to the County's comprehensive plan.” (Bill 1257 at 3; Compl. ¶ 76).

         e. 2016 Comprehensive Plan & 2018 Comprehensive Rezoning

         On June 7, 2016, Talbot County enacted its 2016 Comprehensive Plan. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex. 30 [“2016 Comprehensive Plan Excerpt”], ECF No. 150-9; Defs.' Opp'n Ex. 16 [“Bill No. 1329”], ECF No. 158-18). The 2016 Comprehensive Plan incorporated the tier map established in Bill No. 1229. (2016 Comprehensive Plan Excerpt at 3-4). On July 10, 2018, the County adopted Bill Nos. 1401 and 1402 (the “2018 Comprehensive Rezoning”), which were enacted sixty days later on September 11, 2018. Bill No. 1401 at 2 (repealing and replacing Chapter 190 of the Talbot County Code);[7] Bill No. 1401 Ex. A (Chapter 190 of the Talbot County Code);[8] Bill No. 1402 (Zoning Map Amendment).[9] These Bills implemented the comprehensive rezoning contemplated in the 2016 Comprehensive Plan, which became effective November 10, 2018. (Bill No. 1401 Ex. A at 1). Bill No. 1402 rezoned the Property from a Village Center zoning district to a Resource Conservation (“RC”) zoning district. (See Bill No. 1402 at Map 40; see also Pl.'s Mot. at 6 n.3, 19).

         B. Procedural Background

         On September 16, 2014, Clayland sued Defendants in the Circuit Court for Talbot County, Maryland (the “Original Complaint”). (ECF No. 2). On October 30, 2014, Defendants removed the case to this Court. (Not. of Removal ¶ 2, ECF No. 1). On April 30, 2015, this Court dismissed the Original Complaint on ripeness grounds. (Apr. 30, 2015 Order, ECF No. 22). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that Clayland's claims were ripe. Clayland Farm Enters., LLC v. Talbot Cty., 672 Fed.Appx. 240, 244-45 (4th Cir. 2016). While the appeal to the Fourth Circuit was pending, Clayland filed a new lawsuit against the County and the Maryland Department of Planning (the “Second Complaint”) in the Circuit Court for Talbot County, Clayland Farm Enterprises, LLC v. Talbot County, Maryland (Clayland II), No. JFM-15-2410, (D.Md. removed Aug. 13, 2015), which was removed to this Court, (Clayland II, ECF No. 1). On May 5, 2017, the Court consolidated the two cases. (See May 5, 2017 Order, ECF No. 62).

         Clayland's Original Complaint alleges: Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 constitute an unconstitutional taking of property in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Count I);[10] Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 constitute a deprivation of procedural due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count II); Bill Nos. 1214, 1257, and 1229 constitute a deprivation of substantive due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count III); and a civil conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights secured by the Fourteenth Amendment (Count IV). (Compl. ¶¶ 123-59). The Original Complaint also seeks: a declaratory judgment that Bill No. 1229 is invalid under state law (Count V); a declaratory judgment that Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 are invalid under state law (Count VI); and injunctive relief enjoining Bill Nos. 1214, 1229, and 1257 (Count VII). (Id. ¶¶ 160-80). Clayland brings its federal claims-Counts I, II, III, and IV-under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id. ¶¶ 123-59).

         Clayland's Second Complaint seeks: a declaratory judgment that Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 are invalid under state law and under the Fourteenth Amendment (Count I); a declaratory judgment that Bill No. 1229 is invalid under state law (Count II); and an injunction against the enforcement of Bill Nos. 1214, 1229, 1257 (Count IV). (Compl., Clayland II, [“2d Compl.”] ¶¶ 121-36, 145-50, ECF No. 2). The Second Complaint also alleges an inverse condemnation claim, asserting that Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 constituted an impermissible taking of property under the Fifth Amendment, Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and § 40 of the Maryland Constitution (Count III). (Id. ¶¶ 137-44).

         Clayland seeks equitable relief and monetary damages. (Compl. ¶¶ 133, 138, 149, 159, 165, 174, 180; 2d Compl. ¶¶ 130, 136, 144, 150).

         On October 26, 2018, Clayland filed its Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 148). On October 30, 2018, Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 156). Defendants filed an Opposition to Clayland's Motion on November 8, 2018. (ECF No. 158). Clayland filed a combined Reply and Opposition to Defendants' Motion on November 13, 2018. (ECF No. 161). On December 14, 2018, Defendants filed a Reply. (ECF No. 167).

         On June 4, 2019, the Court ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefing on: (1) whether Counts V, VI, and VII[11] are moot because the County's 2016 Comprehensive Plan and 2018 Comprehensive Rezoning appear to have superseded them; (2) if Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 are characterized as legislative actions, what procedural due process rights apply to them; and (3) information on the plots of the Property that Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 directly affected. (June 4, 2019 Order, ECF No. 169). On June 14, 2019, Clayland and Defendants filed their supplemental briefs. (ECF No. 170; ECF No. 171).


         A. Mootness

         A federal court may raise the issue of mootness sua sponte at any stage in the proceedings because it is a jurisdictional question. United States v. Springer, 715 F.3d 535, 540 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 246 (1971)). The mootness doctrine arises out of Article III of the U.S. Constitution and limits federal courts to deciding ongoing cases or controversies. U.S. Const. art III, § 2; see Porter v. Clarke, 852 F.3d 358, 363 (4th Cir. 2017). “A case is moot when it has ‘lost its character as a present, live controversy of the kind that must exist if we are to avoid advisory opinions on abstract propositions of law.'” Md. Highways Contractors Ass'n, Inc. v. Maryland, 933 F.2d 1246, 1249 (4th Cir. 1991) (citing Diffenderfer v. Cent. Baptist Church of Miami, Inc., 404 U.S. 412, 414 (1972)). A controversy must remain live throughout the duration of the litigation. Porter, 852 F.3d at 363 (quoting Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 68 n.22 (1997)). “When a law no longer remains in effect, cases challenging that law and requesting only prospective equitable relief ordinarily become moot.” Cox v. Phillips, No. 97-2207, 1998 WL 231229, at *2 (4th Cir. May 5, 1998) (first citing Burke v. Barnes, 479 U.S. 361, 363 (1987); and then citing Diffenderfer, 404 U.S. at 414); see Jordahl v. Democratic Party of Virginia, 122 F.3d 192, 198 (4th Cir. 1997); Md. Highways, 933 F.2d at 1249-50.

         Here, Counts V, VI, and VII of the Original Complaint seek only prospective equitable relief. Count V seeks a declaratory judgment that Bill No. 1229 is void under Maryland law. Count VI seeks a declaratory judgment that Bill Nos. 1214 and 1257 are void under Maryland law. Count VII seeks injunctive relief, in part, against the enforcement of Bill Nos. 1214, 1257, and 1229. Talbot County's 2016 Comprehensive Plan and 2018 Comprehensive Rezoning superseded all three of these Bills. The declaratory judgments that Clayland seeks would, therefore, be impermissible advisory opinions. Md. Highways, 933 F.2d at 1249. Further, there would be no utility in enjoining statutes that are no longer in effect. See Kremens v. Bartley, 431 U.S. 119, 129 (1977) (concluding the enactment of a new statute “clearly moots the claims”); Tahoe-Sierra Pres. ...

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