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Judge calls dispute Baltimore's version of Hundred Years' War

Neighbors of an apartment house near the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus lost the latest round in their challenge to the development last week in the state’s highest court.

The Court of Appeals rejected the neighbors’ argument that Baltimore officials violated a city ordinance by permitting each bedroom in the Cresmont Loft Apartments’ four-bedroom suites — marketed as student housing — to be rented separately.

In a second opinion, the court rebuffed a claim that the city violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by approving the project without holding a public hearing or submitting the plan for public review.

The two 6-0 decisions mark just one battle in what Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. called “Baltimore City’s version of The Hundred Years’ War,” pitting nearby residents against the apartments at 2807 Cresmont Ave.

The legal war has lasted five years and will continue, as separate litigation challenging the city’s approval of the complex winds its way through the courts, Harrell wrote.

Challengers Joan Floyd and Douglas Armstrong voiced disappointment with the court’s decisions.

“We’re trying to make government do right,” Floyd said, “and do right by the people.”

Said Armstrong: “This has been a very long and arduous situation.”

Sandra R. Gutman, who argued the high court cases on Baltimore’s behalf, said she hopes the decision will bring the rest of the litigation to a quick end.

“It’s been a long time,” said Gutman, chief solicitor of the land use division in Baltimore’s law department.

Telephone calls seeking comment from Cresmont were not returned.

Armstrong and Floyd’s attorney, J. Carroll Holzer, could not be reached for comment. He is with Holzer & Lee in Towson.

Court of Appeals Judge Mary Ellen Barbera did not participate in the decisions. Barbera did not state the reason for her recusal.

Occupancy limits

The occupancy ordinance in the case requires an apartment to be leased to a “family,” defined as people “living together as a single housekeeping unit.”

The neighbors said the ordinance prohibits Cresmont from renting each room in a suite and having each person sign a separate lease. The controversial arrangement benefits Cresmont, which markets the apartments to university students seeking to room together.

Baltimore’s Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals approved the leasing arrangement in November 2006, saying it satisfies the ordinance’s definition of family.

The board said having separate lease agreements with four different people “does not alter the fact they are living together as a single housekeeping unit … sharing normal household responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning and other related household duties.”

Case: Armstrong v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 106, Sept. Term 2008; and Armstrong v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 107 Sept. Term 2008. Reported. Opinions by Harrell, J. Filed July 23, 2009.

Issue: (106) Do separate lease arrangements for four tenants sharing an apartment suite violate a city ordinance limiting occupancy to a “family”? (107) Does a city council’s approval of an ordinance render moot alleged Open Meetings Act violations by an advisory committee to the council?

Holding: Affirmed. (106) No; the ordinance’s definition of family is broad enough to include tenants sharing responsibility for an apartment. (107) Yes; a city council acting in compliance with the Open Meetings Act trumps alleged violations by an advisory panel.

Counsel: J. Carroll Holzer for petitioner; Sandra R. Gutman and (107) Adam S. Levine for respondent.

RecordFax: #s 9-0723-20 (42 pages) and 9-0723-21 (57 pages)

The court agreed, saying joint access to the apartment and shared responsibility for its care are “significant considerations” in deciding if tenants in a housing unit constitute a “family” under the ordinance. Judges also should defer to board decisions based on a “reasonable rationale,” as was the case with Cresmont Loft, the court stated.

Mooted challenge

In the second opinion, the court rejected the neighbors’ argument that the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee developed and presented the council with a plan in March 2004 for constructing the apartment’s 33-space parking lot without having held a hearing or public review. The court said the neighbors’ Open Meetings Act challenge was rendered moot when the council subsequently held a public meeting and passed an ordinance approving the lot’s construction.

The Court of Special Appeals and, earlier, the Baltimore City Circuit Court also upheld the city’s approval of the project and its lease arrangements.

Harrell predicted his opinions have not ended the litigation, citing cases still pending between the neighbors and city.

“The Hundred Years’ War gave history Joan of Arc,” Harrell wrote. “The instant case also has a central figure named Joan [Floyd] who, like her saintly antecedent, faithfully presses her cause, having battled the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore numerous times.

“Although Joan of Arc suffered an unfortunate fate, her principals, the House of Valois, ultimately succeeded,” Harrell added. “As this case probably will not be the last combat between these litigants, time will tell whether the modern Joan ultimately will hoist the banner of victory in the war over the Cresmont Loft apartment building.”