Court rules $4.7 million is owed over impact fees

No refunds due, county says

homeowners' lawyers to appeal for more

December 22, 2006|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

Homeowners are owed at least $4.7 million after a judge found that Anne Arundel County misspent the fees they'd paid to bolster schools and roads, but refunds won't be sent out anytime soon.

Lawyers for the homeowners vowed to appeal last week's ruling in county Circuit Court, calling the settlement amount, even when interest swells it to more than $10 million, much too low. And the new county attorney said the county would appeal if the plaintiffs' attorneys appealed.

"The judge's opinion cannot and will not be sustained on appeal," said John R. Greiber Jr., one of two attorneys representing homebuyers who paid impact fees between 1988 and 1996. "The county argues with their own figures. We accept them, and when you add those up, it comes to $27 million with interest."

The county maintains that no refunds are due. Its lawyers argued in part that the statute of limitations have expired, said county attorney Jonathan Hodgson.

"There are many grounds for an appeal, and we are continuing to weigh them," Hodgson said, without specifying what grounds the county was considering. "We have to look at the decision in its totality, which includes rulings by the court, which we think are incorrect."

Anne Arundel County began collecting impact fees in 1988 from developers to cover the costs of additional schools and infrastructure upgrades needed to accommodate the new residents. Developers typically pass the fees to the homebuyers.

Over the years, the fee on a single-family home has increased from $877 to more than $4,000.

The lawsuit was filed in February 2001 on behalf of people who bought homes in a planned community in Odenton, but the plaintiffs' lawyers have said the case could involve 35,000 homebuyers. It alleges that the county either misspent the impact fee money on projects that did not expand the capacity of public services or did not spend the money within the six years specified by law.

As part of his ruling on Dec. 15, Circuit Judge Philip T. Caroom ruled that the use of portable classrooms did not count as a permanent expansion of public services and granted $679,514 in school impact fee refunds. He said the total judgment represented a small portion of impact fees collected.

"But the county has also incurred substantial attorneys fees and court costs," he wrote. "It has been an expensive lesson which, the taxpayers hope, never will be repeated."

Greiber said he planned to file a motion for reconsideration and then take the case to the Court of Special Appeals.

"This is a long, drawn-out fight, but it was drawn out by the county, not by us," he said.

His law partner, Phillip F. Scheibe, meanwhile, was ordered in March by the county Ethics Commission to remove himself from the case.

It found that Scheibe, who served as county attorney from 1994 to 1999, and Robert J. Dvorak, a 23-year county employee who retired as chief administrative officer in 1997 and is now working for the plaintiffs, were improperly using their inside knowledge of the impact fee program.

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