Land dispute sparks lawsuit

Developer calls county's waivers for schools illegal

Subdivision deals noted

September 07, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A prominent developer with a history of disputes with Anne Arundel County filed a $50 million class-action lawsuit this week, alleging that four county government administrations have wrongly exacted land and money from developers in exchange for approving their subdivisions.

Silver Spring-based Halle Development Inc. is claiming that the county's decade-old practice of issuing waivers to its law that mandates adequate school capacity in exchange for developer contributions toward new schools is unconstitutional and banned by county law. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, with a companion case in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The lawsuit names more than a dozen current and past county officials, including County Executive Janet S. Owens and past executives O. James Lighthizer, Robert R. Neall and John G. Gary, chief administrators and their top land-use officers.

Among the arguments the Halle company makes in the lawsuit are that a developer has to show undue hardship, other than a financial one, to win a waiver, but the waiver arrangement was based on money; and that the county government was demanding land for schools, but even it cannot site or build schools - only the Board of Education, an arm of state government, can do that.

County officials had no comment, saying they had not seen the lawsuit. School waivers have been a volatile issue since the mid-1990s, and the lawsuit repeats a complaint that has come up repeatedly during elections, that school waivers contributed toward crowded schools.

Owens spokesman Andrew C. Carpenter said Owens has not issued any school waivers since her 1998 election. She ousted incumbent Gary in part by attacking his granting of school waivers.

Though the Office of Law told the County Council in May 1999 that it was wrong to base a waiver on finances, the policy has not formally been changed, the lawsuit states. Shortly after the 1998 election, land-use officials granted a road improvement waiver to an 18-home development off Riva Road, leading several Council members to criticize Owens for failing to stop it after she took office.

County law requires that water, roads, schools, sewerage and storm drainage be adequate shortly after a development is built. But, the lawsuit contends, by 1989 the county was circumventing that law by requiring developers to contribute money and land to obtain waivers from the school adequacy requirement, saying developers had to pay toward services that taxes would not cover.

"I, as the county, cannot look the other way if you give me $4.7 million," said John R. Greiber Jr., attorney for Warren E. "Cookie" Halle, who controls several development companies.

The lawsuit contends the county instituted the policy "with the intent to defraud, deceive, misrepresent and inflict injury" upon developers.

Among Halle's developments is Seven Oaks in Odenton. Halle paid $4.7 million in waiver fees and gave 16 acres to the county for a school to win the waivers that allowed him to build the planned residential subdivision. A school has not been built on the land, though a school system plan calls for design work to begin in 2002 on an elementary school there.

Beginning in 1989, under Lighthizer, the county negotiated several agreements to allow large developments, such as Seven Oaks, to go forward, said John A. Morris, land-use spokesman. Property owners paid varying fees, based on how much the development was estimated to cost the county and how much the county charged in impact fees. Between 1991 and 1998, the county granted 334 school waivers that cleared the way for 3,563 potential lots and 1,094 potential students, with developers paying $7.2 million toward school capacity, Morris said.

Sun staff writer Scott Calvert contributed to this article.

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