Class-action suit filed over county road fee

January 23, 1994|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writer

A class-action suit was filed Monday against the county by lawyers for three northern Harford County residents and as many as 250 yet-to-be-determined individual property owners and developers.

The class-action suit contests an assessment that property owners and developers pay for future road improvements.

The suit in Harford Circuit Court encompasses people who sought to subdivide their property into more than five building lots since 1977, when the county began enforcing its assessment practice.

In a Jan. 5 decision by the state Court of Special Appeals, the court ruled that such assessment fees are an illegal tax.

The county has 30 days to respond.

"We're researching the matter and have not yet decided how we will answer it," said Ernest A. Crofoot, county attorney.

Mr. Crofoot declined to comment on the specifics of the suit, or whether the county would appeal the appellate court's decision.

George Harrison, spokesman for the county administration, said Friday that the county's position, based on a Circuit Court decision in February 1993, is that the money collected for road improvement is not an illegal tax.

Mr. Harrison said all money collected is kept in an escrow account until used to improve roads for the project for which it has been collected.

Mr. Harrison would not comment on specifics of the suit or on what legal steps the county will take.

The plaintiffs in the class-action suit are Joseph J. Wielepski of the 3600 block of Day Road in Darlington, and his brother and sister-in-law, Stanley and Janet Wielepski of the 3500 block of Day Road in Darlington.

Alfred N. Kramer, one of three Aberdeen attorneys representing the Wielepskis along with attorneys William R. Phelan Jr. and James S. Ruckle Jr., said that if a Circuit Court judge certifies the suit as a class action, they could begin advertising to locate others who may have been harmed by the county's assessment.

"We believe the number 250 is a conservative estimate," Mr. Kramer said. "But until all are identified, it's really impossible to know how many there are."

The class-action suit seeks $10 million in compensatory damages for each potential plaintiff who could come from one of three groups, Mr. Kramer said. These are:

* Property owners who are seeking to subdivide their land and who paid the county's assessment to improve the roads.

* Others who couldn't pay it or decided not to and gave up their projects.

* Still others who didn't pay but deeded a portion of their land to the county as a right of way for future road improvements and were never compensated for the land.

The suit contends that the Wielepskis sought to develop their property in 1991 by subdividing it into more than nine home lots.

While obtaining county approvals, the Wielepskis learned that 1990 county subdivision regulations would require them to make the road improvements themselves or to pay the county to make the improvements.

The price the county's engineer set for doing the work was $97,000.

The suit alleges that this assessment pushed their costs above market value, so they halted their development plans.

But before that, the Wielepskis were required to deed a right of way -- a portion of their property -- to the county for road improvements, according to the suit.

The suit says the Wielepskis appealed the matter to Larry W. Klimovitz, the county's director of administration, who upheld the county agency's actions in January 1992.

After that opinion was upheld in Circuit Court in February 1993, it was appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which decided Jan. 5 that the money collected was, in effect, an illegal tax.

Civil rights issues, such as taking property without just compensation, may apply in the Wielepskis' case and in the case of each individual in the class action suit.

Aside from these types of claims, it is possible that some developers may have halted their projects because of the road improvement assessment and subsequently lost financial backers for a project.

If owners can prove the amount of money lost in such a scenario and the class action includes more than 200, the liability to the county could be in the billions of dollars.

For its part, the county can ask the full Court of Special Appeals to reconsider the three-judge panel's decision. Or, it could appeal the ruling in the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Depending on the outcome there, it is possible the issue could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Currently, Montgomery County, Baltimore City and Baltimore County collect money for future road improvements through legislation passed by the General Assembly.

Harford County sought similar authority from the 1990 General Assembly in Senate Bill 920, which was passed by the Senate but not by the House of Delegates.

Sen. William H. Amoss, who co-sponsored Bill 920 with Sen. Catherine I. Riley in the 1990 legislative session, had sought to enable Harford County to impose and provide for the collection of development-impact fees.

Such fees would be used to fund all or part of the capital costs of additional or expanded public works, improvements, and facilities required to accommodate new construction or development.

Although the bill was defeated, the county has continued to collect money for future road improvements, the class-action suit contends.

Mr. Harrison said the county does not consider its collecting the money for future road development an impact fee. It's a partial payment for road construction, he said.

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