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Property owners lack standing in zoning-law cases, court says

In a defeat for those concerned about increased neighborhood traffic, Maryland’s top court has ruled property owners cannot challenge a comprehensive local rezoning ordinance in court unless they are taxpayers who have suffered a financial loss or increased taxes due to the new law.

The Court of Appeals, in its 4-3 decision, blocked a challenge from property owners to an Anne Arundel County ordinance converting open fields to mixed-use residential zoning. The court said the owners’ concerns about traffic and environmental decay were insufficient to give them standing to sue.

In its ruling, the high court declined to extend to zoning-ordinance challenges the standing it has permitted property owners opposing administrative land-use decisions made by county zoning boards. The court noted that land-use decisions are executive functions, whereas ordinances are legislative acts subject to stricter standing requirements for property owners.

Granting “property-owner standing” in rezoning-ordinance cases would enable people to sue counties based on claims of being aggrieved by the new law because their property is near the rezoned district, the court said Tuesday.

“Hypothetically, thousands of plaintiffs with the benefit of property-owner standing could have standing to challenge comprehensive zoning legislation,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote for the majority. “This would be unworkable entirely. This court has been reticent in the extreme to construe standing doctrines so broadly…. “

Thus, standing to challenge a rezoning ordinance applies not to property owners who allege increased congestion but to those who would suffer “a pecuniary loss … or an increase in taxes,” the court added.

“Frustration with increased traffic, annoyance with increased noise, and violations of a right (if any) to participate in zoning changes are not the sort of harms with which taxpayer standing is concerned,” Harrell wrote in overturning a lower court decision granting the property owners standing. “Even if these harms were within the purview of taxpayer standing, they are not unique to the [plaintiffs], as opposed to the general public.”

Prior decisions have held that property owners have standing to sue if their property was rezoned via ordinance, leaving unanswered whether everyone in the neighborhood could also sue, said attorney Gregory J. Swain, of the Anne Arundel County Office of Law.

The high court’s decision “gives clarity” to the standing issue and “provides guideline for the future,” Swain said Wednesday.

“The real danger was having just lots of these lawsuits,” he added. “We are happy that the court tightened it up the way they did.”

G. Macy Nelson. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

G. Macy Nelson. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

G. Macy Nelson, attorney for the property owners, said the issue boiled down to whether the court was ready to extend to rezoning ordinances the standing it provides for challenges to administrative zoning decisions.

The judges asked themselves “are we going to stop this train now?” Nelson added, referring to an expansion of standing.

“Four wanted to stop it and three did not,” he said Wednesday. “It was a very close case.”

In dissent, Judge Sally D. Adkins said property owners should have standing if they are specially aggrieved by the new zoning law because of their proximity to its adverse consequences. She cited one homeowner in the case whose property adjoins or confronts property rezoned from open space to mixed use, potentially enabling an office building or bar to become her new neighbor.

Permitting such “proximity standing” in rezoning-ordinance cases would not lead to the deluge of claimants the high court’s majority fears, Adkins added.

“There is no reason to think that most comprehensive rezonings, which are adopted by elected officials, will be so offensive to property owners that, as the majority projects, thousands (or even hundreds) of them will pursue judicial relief,” Adkins wrote.

“Surely, the costs of conducting such a lawsuit, together with the dismal prospect for success on the merits, will be unpalatable to most,” she added. “Even with standing secured, property owners face a precipitous up-hill battle to win a declaration that a comprehensive rezoning ordinance is invalid. We have long recognized that comprehensive rezoning ordinances are entitled to a strong presumption of correctness.”

At least nine individual property owners, a homeowners association and environmental groups challenged the 2011 ordinance, Bill 12-11, in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court that summer. The court dismissed the suit, agreeing with the county that the property owners lacked standing.

But the intermediate Court of Special Appeals reversed in November 2013, saying the owners were sufficiently aggrieved by the ordinance to have standing. The county sought review by the Court of Appeals.

Joining Harrell’s majority opinion in favor of the county were Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and judges Clayton Greene Jr. and Shirley M. Watts.

Judges Lynne A. Battaglia and Robert N. McDonald joined Adkins’ dissent.

The high court rendered its decision in Anne Arundel County, Md., et al. v. Bell et al., No. 29, Sept. Term 2014, and the companion case Anne Arundel County, Md., et al. v. Harwood Civic Association Inc. et al., No. 39, Sept. Term 2014.