Steve Lash//March 6, 2023
//March 6, 2023
The Maryland Supreme Court has delivered Amazon a legal victory, clearing the way for the online shopping and shipping service to operate a distribution center in Upper Marlboro over the objections of nearby residents.
In a 7-0 decision, the high court said the Prince George’s County Council validly approved Amazon’s plan to use a 290,225-square-foot building in an industrial complex for a holding and distribution center for the online orders the company receives.
The justices rejected the residents’ argument that Amazon’s facility qualifies as neither a permitted “warehouse” nor “distribution” center under the county’s zoning ordinance.
The residents argued through counsel that Amazon’s goods are not “stored,” as they would be in a warehouse, but held for less than 12 hours until delivered. The goods are also not distributed to “sales outlets” or “service operations,” as stated in the ordinance, but to individual purchasers, the residents added.
But the high court said last month that the ordinance sets no minimum time which goods must be stored to qualify as a warehouse. The justices added that Amazon’s “service operations” include its deliveries to online customers.
“From the consumer’s perspective, that’s’ the raison d’etre of Amazon: to distribute the product from the retailer or wholesaler directly to the consumer’s doorstep,” Justice Steven B. Gould wrote for the court. “The building would support the distribution function of Amazon’s operations.”
In its ruling, the court applied a standard dictionary definition of “storage” – a place where goods are held – to conclude that the county council, acting as a district council for zoning purposes, had “substantial evidence” to determine that Amazon’s facility was a warehouse.
“Under Amazon’s proposal, the building would, indeed, be used to ‘hold’ products, however brief that duration might be,” Gould wrote.
The residents’ attorney, G. Macy Nelson, said Monday that the high court was too deferential to the council’s conclusion that Amazon was opening a warehouse.
In reality, the company was operating an around-the-clock delivery center that bears no resemblance to the warehousing facilities contemplated under the county’s decades old zoning ordinance, added Nelson, of the Law Office G. Macy Nelson LLC in Towson.
“The zoning ordinances are a generation out of date,” Nelson said.
“The world changed with Amazon,” he added. “It was like someone threw a switch. This is a 24-7 operation.”
But Rajesh A. Kumar, the council’s principal attorney, stated via email Monday that the high court “followed well-established precedent and reaffirmed that the final decision of the district council is the appropriate agency decision that is subject to judicial review and when the district council’s final decision is based on a mixed question of law and fact, a reviewing court will apply the substantial evidence standard of review.”
Amazon’s attorney, Brett Ingerman, declined to comment on the high court’s decision. Ingerman is with DLA Piper in Baltimore.
Amazon bought the building in Upper Marlboro’s Collington Park business community in 2020, a year after the online giant abandoned its plans to build a 4 million square foot facility on the town’s outskirts amid community opposition.
The company said it will use the smaller facility as a “last mile” delivery center at which goods will be received and held generally for less than 12 hours before being sent out for delivery. Nondelivered packages would be returned to the center, where Amazon also plans to pave an area for the parking and loading of delivery vehicles.
Nearby residents again objected, citing concerns about light and noise emanating from the facility from which trucks would enter and exit around the clock.
The Prince George’s County Planning Board approved Amazon’s planned use on July 30, 2020, after holding a public hearing. The county council affirmed the board’s decision, as did the Prince George’s County Circuit Court when the residents sought judicial review.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on direct appeal from the circuit court.
The residents who sought high court review are Ray Crawford, Kathy Crawford and Charles Reilly.
The justices rendered their decision in Ray Crawford et al. v. County Council of Prince George’s County, Sitting as the District Council, No. 4 September Term 2022.