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Md. court: Homeowners’ group lacks standing to challenge zoning

A schematic of 101 York looking north in Towson. The Greater Towson Council of Community Organizations, which represents 30 neighborhood groups in Baltimore County, wanted to challenge a zoning decision related to the mixed-used development, but the Court of Special Appeals last week held such umbrella groups generally lack standing. (Courtesy DMS Development LLC)

A schematic of 101 York looking north in Towson. The Greater Towson Council of Community Organizations, which represents 30 neighborhood groups in Baltimore County, wanted to challenge a zoning decision related to the mixed-used development, but the Court of Special Appeals last week held such umbrella groups generally lack standing. (Courtesy DMS Development LLC)

Umbrella organizations of homeowners’ associations generally lack standing to challenge zoning decisions because they lack individual resident members who would be harmed by the rezoning, Maryland’s second-highest court said last week in rejecting a group’s bid to oppose redevelopment in Towson.

In its 3-0 decision, the Court of Special Appeals said individual homeowners’ associations themselves often have standing issues, as zoning-related harms sustained by individual residents are not necessarily shared by the associations as a whole. Umbrella organizations, essentially associations of the associations, have an even weaker claim to standing because they lack residential members near the planned unit development and, therefore, can assert only a generalized objection to the plan, the court added in its reported decision.

The appellate court’s ruling blocks the Greater Towson Council of Community Organizations – which represents 30 neighborhood groups in Baltimore County – from challenging in court DMS Development LLC’s approved mixed residential and commercial project in downtown Towson, dubbed 101 York PUD.

“GTC … does not own any property near the 101 York PUD; indeed, GTC does not own any property in Maryland,” Judge Stuart R. Berger wrote for the appellate court.

“Moreover, GTC is a combination of various neighborhood associations, rather than a neighborhood or community association with individual resident members,” Berger added. “Thus, GTC is even further removed from any aggrievement caused by the board’s decision to individual resident property owners than in other cases involving neighborhood associations. GTC, therefore, was not an ‘aggrieved’ party based on the property interests of any of the individual resident members of the neighborhoods, which were, in turn, members of the GTC.”

The Court of Special Appeals’ decision reversed a Baltimore County Circuit Court’s ruling that GTC had standing in court, though the trial court ultimately upheld the Baltimore County Board of Appeals’ approval of the PUD just north of the intersection of York Road and Burke Avenue.

The circuit court judge should have granted the developer’s motion for a dismissal based on GTC’s lack of standing, the appellate court said.

“The circuit court in this case attempted to permit GTC to pursue its challenge to the board’s zoning decision based on its sense of the fundamental fairness implications at stake,” Berger wrote.

“Although we appreciate the circuit court’s logic in finding that GTC should have had some path to review of the board’s decision because GTC was a party before the board, the low threshold for standing before the board in Baltimore County conflicts with the standing principles controlling a party’s ability to challenge a land use decision in the circuit court,” Berger added. “Unfortunately for GTC, however, its participation as a party before the board was not enough; to have standing to petition for judicial review before the circuit court, GTC was required to show that it was ‘aggrieved’ by the board’s decision.”

GTC’s attorney, Brian J. Murphy, said he and his client have not decided yet whether they will seek Court of Appeals review of a decision with which he strongly disagrees.

“They (the Court of Special Appeals) used a very traditional notion of standing in this case: You must own property either contiguous or near the affected development,” said Murphy, a Baltimore solo practitioner.

“There should be a newer notion of standing,” he added. “You don’t necessarily have to be a property owner. An association that is directly affected by this (development) can have standing.”

DMS’ attorney G. Scott Barhight said the court’s ruling on the standing issue was correct.

“This case makes it abundantly clear that courts are going to follow over a half century of precedent,” said Barhight, of Whiteford Taylor Preston LLP in Towson.

Berger was joined in the decision by Judges Michael W. Reed and James P. Salmon, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in Greater Towson Council of Community Associations v. DMS Development LLC, Nos. 853 and 854 September Term 2016.


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