Winning a pointed, clear-cut victory in a three-year legal battle with its neighbors in Baltimore County's rural Green Spring Valley, Villa Julie College has been cleared to add buildings and students to its campus.
Villa Julie's victory came in an unusual Maryland Court of Special Appeals opinion ordering a lower court to throw out limits a county zoning commissioner imposed on the small, private college's enrollment growth.
The decision, the appellate judges noted in a long, detailed ruling last week, came despite their long-standing policy of not hearing cases that did not result from a trial; in this case, the appeal was of an administrative proceeding.
The college wants to construct two buildings and an addition to a structure that would add 98,000 square feet of classrooms, laboratories and study areas. It also sought to build a sewage-treatment plant.
Villa Julie attorney Max H. Lauten said the college "is thrilled to get over this hurdle and get down to the business of providing better education to its students rather than fighting court battles."
Villa Julie's expansion plan had been fought by owners of several adjacent properties and the Valleys Planning Council, a community group dedicated to preserving agricultural and rural land.
J. Carroll Holzer, attorney for the Valleys Planning Council, could not be reached for comment about the decision Friday or yesterday.
Events leading up to the decision began in July 1992, when County Zoning Commissioner Lawrence E. Schmidt granted the college a special zoning exception required for an institution in an agricultural-zoned area to build. He also ruled that the on-site wastewater treatment plant was permitted, under zoning regulations, as an accessory use to the college.
According to testimony in zoning hearings, the treatment plant was essential because the college's septic system was failing and could not handle existing needs, let alone an increase brought on by expansion.
In granting the exception, however, Mr. Schmidt limited it with conditions capping enrollment at 2,500 students and limiting growth to 5 percent a year. The college has about 1,800 students.
The zoning commissioner saw the conditions as limiting the impact of the college's expansion on the surrounding agricultural area.
The college had received permit approval from the state to discharge effluent from the treatment plant into an intermittent stream. Although the permit allowed the discharge of up to 60,000 gallons a day, the zoning commissioner set a limit of 50,000 gallons.
The college and its opponents appealed Mr. Schmidt's decision to the county Board of Appeals, which, in July 1993, upheld the zoning commissioner.
Before hearing the case, the Board of Appeals granted a motion by Villa Julie's attorney to eliminate testimony about the environmental effects of the treatment plant.
The board said the issue of the treatment plant had been dealt with by the state and the County Council, but later in the proceedings heard testimony about it in reviewing the zoning commissioner's decision that it was an accessory use.
Both sides again appealed -- this time to the Baltimore County Circuit Court, where Judge Barbara Kerr Howe ruled that the board was wrong in agreeing to exclude testimony on the treatment plant. Without hearing other issues, she remanded the case back to the Board of Appeals.
But Villa Julie took the case to the Court of Special Appeals, Maryland's second-highest court, which ruled that the Circuit Court should have heard the whole case and not limited itself to the motion to exclude testimony.
Irritated at the legal wanderings of the case, the appellate judges went against what they described as the court's long-standing rule against deciding questions that have not been decided by a trial court.
To prevent additional legal maneuvering and wasted "expenditure of judicial time and public expense," the appellate judges ordered the Circuit Court judge to affirm the special zoning exceptions granted by the zoning commissioner.
The lower court also was ordered to overturn the conditions imposed by the zoning commissioner, which the appellate judges said they believed was done without sufficient supporting evidence.
And although the higher court said the Board of Appeals had erred in granting the motion to eliminate testimony on the treatment plant, it proved to be a harmless error because much of that testimony came in during the hearing anyway.