Court won't suspend ruling

County must process two developers' plans despite growth freeze

County appealing Nov. 13 ruling

Yearlong moratorium set to expire in June

December 21, 2003|By Hanah Cho and Childs Walker | Hanah Cho and Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Having lost in their bid to delay the effect of a court ruling that dealt a significant blow to the county's growth freeze, Carroll County officials must try to convince the state's second-highest court that they were justified in abruptly halting a trio of subdivision plans.

The Court of Special Appeals denied the county's request that it suspend injunctions requiring Carroll to process development proposals affected by the freeze and directed lawyers in the case to schedule further proceedings quickly.

Lawyers for the county and the developers are to contact the court by 10:30 a.m. Tuesday so the court "can arrange to resolve the issues presented in this case as soon as is reasonably practicable," according to an order issued Thursday.

The ruling Thursday was the most recent setback to the county's attempts to delay processing projects affected by the freeze, which is set to expire in June. Previously, the county went to court in opposition to the developers' requests for injunctions and, after losing, unsuccessfully sought to suspend the court's ruling pending an appeal.

The county has also tried to have two other cases challenging the growth freeze moved from county Circuit Court to federal court.

After Carroll County Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway issued the injunctions sought by developers on Nov. 13 - saying that any developer in a similar position might reasonably seek the same relief - five similar cases were filed a day later in Circuit Court. Those cases have been consolidated, but no hearings have been scheduled.

Lawyers for the developers want to get their cases in court in hopes of winning similar, favorable rulings that would allow them to move ahead on projects.

"The quicker the appeal is resolved, the quicker all parties can face the issues in the merits of the case," said Westminster land-use attorney David Bowersox, who has five similar injunction cases pending in Circuit Court. "In light of the statements ... in the order, it sounds as if the Court of Special Appeals would like to dispose of the issue of the preliminary injunction expeditiously."

The one-year freeze, enacted by the county commissioners, closed the door to new subdivisions on land covered by adequate-facilities laws, which are designed to prevent growth from overwhelming county services. The freeze also has delayed development on about 1,700 lots that passed earlier stages in the county's subdivision review process.

In his November decision, Galloway ordered the county to move forward on plans filed by Kohler Development Co. of Eldersburg and Forty West Builders Inc. of Ellicott City.

In each case, the developer had received a certificate from the county saying its subdivision would not strain school, road or water capacities and could therefore move forward.

During the injunction hearings, lawyers for the developers argued that the certificates offered their clients the right to move forward and based on that assumption, they secured bank loans and paid development fees.

The county, however, argued that the certificates established timelines for the projects but offered no guarantees that they would move forward.

In his ruling, Galloway wrote that those certificates could be considered contracts, and that any developer who had such a document might reasonably say the county broke its promises by implementing the freeze.

Earlier this month, Galloway rejected the county's requests for a stay on the injunctions.

Meanwhile, the county's planning department is reviewing and processing only subdivision plans covered under the court rulings.

Forty West's two projects, which would add about 130 houses outside of Mount Airy, are expected to come before the subdivision advisory committee for development review Dec. 29.

Stephen Costello, owner of Forty West, said Friday that he was pleased with the Court of Special Appeals ruling.

"All along, we felt that the certificates are contracts, and so far, it has been upheld that way," Costello said.

Despite the appeals court's ruling against the county, Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said the legal battle does not undermine the deferral's purpose.

"We still need to keep the growth to slow down until we could catch up with the facilities," Gouge said Friday.

"We definitely made the right decision to put the deferral on. I stand by that."

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