`Comp Lite' foes fighting motion to dismiss lawsuit

They say county's claim that they waited too long to act is legally flawed

January 12, 2007|BY A SUN REPORTER

Opponents challenging the legality of "Comp Lite" rezoning have asked the Howard County Circuit Court to reject the county's motion to summarily dismiss their lawsuit.

The county's case is faulty and unsupportable by case law, the opponents' attorney, Katherine L. Taylor, says in a filing with the court.

Judge Louis A. Becker III will hear arguments March 2 on the county's motion to dismiss the suit, which was filed in October on behalf of 14 Howard residents.

The motion, filed about a month ago asking for dismissal, alleges that the opponents lack legal standing to bring the lawsuit and, regardless, that they waited too long to contest the legislation authorizing the Comp Lite process.

The latter point seeks to invoke 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 either has adversely harmed the defendant.

The county, in its motion to the court, claims "by delaying over two years" to challenge the legislation that authorized the Comp Lite process, "plaintiffs put in jeopardy ... potentially the county's zoning regulations that affect thousands of property owners."

Taylor attacks the laches defense on several fronts, principally, though, by asserting that the public did not become aware of the enabling legislation until after the Comp Lite process had been completed and the rezoning approved by the County Council.

"It would be patently unfair to allow a laches defense to knock out a claim attacking the validity of a law where one of the major complaints is that the lawmakers failed to adequately notify the public of the purpose and intent of the law," Taylor's filing says.

Further, the filing says, "It would have made no sense to file a complaint" challenging the legislation simultaneously when opponents were attempting to place the Comp Lite rezonings on November's general election ballot as a referendum.

That effort failed when the referendum was invalidated by the Court of Special Appeals, which ruled in June that the ballot's wording was grossly inadequate because it provided the public with too little information about what the measure would do.

The Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, declined to accept an appeal of that ruling.

Taylor claims in her filing that the "most significant" delay in the case resulted not from her clients but from legal maneuverings to block the referendum by other property owners who benefited from the rezonings included in Comp Lite.

Plans for the lawsuit began immediately after the referendum effort was defeated, Taylor says.

Taylor also maintains that it is indisputable that her clients have legal standing to bring the lawsuit.

To meet that standard, they must show that they would be "specially aggrieved," or adversely affected in ways that the general public would not.

Taylor's filing says that her clients "will suffer from increased noise and traffic and decreased property values. ... Further, they all allege that their use and enjoyment of their property will be adversely affected by the zoning changes."

The lawsuit is a two-pronged attack in that it contests not just the zoning changes, but also the legality of the legislation authorizing the Comp Lite process.

It claims that the enabling legislation, enacted after completion of the county's once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process in 2004, was "invalid and ineffective as an attempt to retroactively alter or amend" the comprehensive rezoning plan.

The lawsuit also alleges that the changes included in Comp Lite are illegal because the county code and state common law require comprehensive zoning to cover the entire county or a substantial part of it.

Comp Lite was completed in 2005. Initially, it was restricted to zoning cases deferred by the council when it enacted the 2004 comprehensive rezoning plan. Over almost a year, however, numerous other cases that had not been considered in 2004 were added to Comp Lite until it included 38 map amendments and 49 pages of text amendments.

The county had never used such a system, but officials have said they believe Comp Lite was a legal extension of the previous year's rezoning process.

But the lawsuit claims: "Comp Lite in many ways failed to conform to the proper legislative procedures required. ... In short, the legislative process was skirted, resulting in the public being unaware of the changes requested and ultimately approved."

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