• Plaintiffs Fail to Establish Their Standing to Challenge Comprehensive Rezoning in Anne Arundel County
  • May 20, 2015 | Author: Richard H. Topaz
  • Law Firm: Gordon Feinblatt LLC - Baltimore Office
  • In Anne Arundel County, Maryland v. Bell, No. 29, Sept. Term, 2014 (filed Apr. 21, 2015), the Court of Appeals held that challengers to comprehensive zoning ordinances must satisfy the requirements of the taxpayer standing doctrine, rather than the property owner standing doctrine.

    In Bell, a group of citizens (the “Citizens”) challenged Bill 12-11 (the “Bill”), a comprehensive zoning ordinance adopted by the County Council for Anne Arundel County, which changed the previous zoning classifications of 264 out of the 59,045 individual parcels and lots totaling 4,265 acres in the vicinity of the Baltimore/Washington International Airport and all of the property along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway corridor in Anne Arundel County. The Circuit Court concluded that the Citizens lacked standing to bring suit because they failed to prove special aggrievement. On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals vacated the judgment of the Circuit Court, holding that the Citizens enjoyed property owner standing to challenge the Bill. In a 4 to 3 decision written by Judge Harrell, the Court of Appeals reversed the Court of Special Appeals.

    Complainants may maintain suits regarding land use actions under one of two standing doctrines depending on the circumstances: property owner standing and taxpayer standing. Under the property owner standing doctrine as it has been applied in Maryland cases, an “aggrieved person” may challenge a zoning action if he can show that he is “specially harmed” by the action in a manner different from the general public and if he lives no more than 200 to 1,000 feet away. On the other hand, to maintain a suit under the taxpayer standing doctrine, a complainant must allege: (1) that the complainant is a taxpayer; and (2) that the suit is brought, either expressly or implicitly, on behalf of all other taxpayers. Once a complainant establishes eligibility to bring a suit under the taxpayer standing doctrine, he must allege that the governmental action is illegal or ultra vires and that the action may reasonably result in a pecuniary loss to the taxpayer or an increase in taxes.

    The Bell Court decided that property owner standing is reserved for challenges to land use decisions reached through quasi-judicial or administrative/executive processes - including piecemeal rezoning of individual properties - while taxpayer standing is the appropriate doctrine applied to judicial challenges to land use actions reached via a purely legislative process - including comprehensive zoning actions, such as the action in the Bell case.

    The Court of Appeals ruled that the Citizens did not satisfy the requirements of the taxpayer standing doctrine because they failed to allege that their taxes would be increased or that the illegal action would result in any other form of pecuniary loss to them, and that therefore the Circuit Court appropriately dismissed their case.

    In dissent, Judge Adkins wrote that the property owner standing doctrine should not be limited to administrative land use decisions, but should also apply to legislative land use decisions like comprehensive zoning. Expansion of that doctrine would ensure that all complainants who are specially aggrieved by rezoning have standing to challenge it in the courts. Further, it would not result in an opening of the floodgates to suits by the owners of 59,045 parcels or lots, as the majority alleged; rather, only those property owners living in very close proximity to the 264 affected parcels that underwent zoning changes under the Bill would have standing to challenge the comprehensive rezoning.