County asks court to dismiss suit

14 residents have sued, contending that Comp Lite rezoning was illegal

December 06, 2006|By sun reporter

The county has asked the Circuit Court to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the legality of last year's major rezoning process, commonly referred to as Comp Lite.

The lawsuit was filed in October on behalf of 14 residents and alleges that numerous state and county laws were violated, including the absence of legal authority to authorize Comp Lite.

In a formal response, the county claims the residents lack legal standing and waited too long to contest the legislation authorizing the Comp Lite process.

The latter point invokes not the doctrine of statute of limitations but of "laches," which states that a legal right or claim will not be allowed if a deliberate and long delay in asserting that claim has adversely harmed the defendant.

Such delays may be regarded as a "legal ambush," according to the legal Web site law.com.

The County Council passed legislation authorizing Comp Lite on May 3, 2004, but the lawsuit challenging that action was not filed until two years later, the county's filing with the court notes.

"By delaying over two years," the filing says, "plaintiffs put in jeopardy ... potentially the county's zoning regulations that affect thousands of property owners."

The county's response, though, does not suggest that laches applies to the challenge against the enactment of the rezoning changes included in Comp Lite.

The filing, submitted by the Office of Law, also says that the residents challenging Comp Lite "must have an actual, real and justiciable property interest susceptible of protection through litigation. ... There is no presumption of special damages for adjoining, confronting or nearby owners."

Thus, the filing says, the residents lack legal standing to bring the lawsuit and that the suit should be dismissed.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Katherine L. Taylor, acknowledges that state law grants the county "broad authority" in zoning matters, but says that it also prohibits the county from engaging "in any activity which is beyond their power."

Comp Lite was completed last year. Initially, it was restricted to zoning cases deferred by the council when it enacted the county's comprehensive rezoning process, which occurs every 10 years and had been completed in 2004.

Over almost a year, however, numerous other cases that had not been previously considered in 2004 were added to Comp Lite until it included 38 map amendments and 49 pages of text amendments.

Although the county had never before used such a system, officials said Comp Lite was a legal extension of the previous year's rezoning process.

The lawsuit alleges that there was no legal basis for such an extension and asks the court to invalidate the rezoning that was ultimately enacted by the Comp Lite legislation.

The lawsuit was filed after opponents failed to place a voter referendum on the Comp Lite legislation on last month's general election ballot.

Although the opponents collected sufficient signatures to qualify for the referendum, the ballot measure was invalidated in June by the state Court of Special Appeals, which ruled that the ballot's wording was grossly inadequate because it provided the public with too little information about what the measure would do.

An appeal of that ruling failed when the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, declined to accept the case.

Taylor said she believes her clients have legal standing.

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