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Harford sued for $100 million over defeated rubble landfill project

A company that sought unsuccessfully to develop a rubble landfill near Havre de Grace filed a $100 million suit against Harford County last week, claiming the county's actions had rendered its property "valueless."

The suit, filed Feb. 19 in Harford County Circuit Court by Maryland Reclamation Associates, is the latest in a 24-year-old political and legal saga that began in 1989, when the company first sought to develop a depleted gravel pit into a dump for demolition rubble and other construction debris.

The suit comes almost three years after the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled against the company following a protracted zoning case that lasted more than a decade, effectively exhausting what the company says were its legal and administrative remedies to use the property as it intended.

In that ruling, issued in March 2010, the court both upheld the county's denial of a key zoning variance for the property and also determined the law the county had enacted that required the owner to obtain the variance was within the county's legal prerogatives. Previously, the courts had upheld the county's legal authority to pass zoning legislation that affected the property before its owners had received final state and county approval to begin using it as a rubble dump.

"There being no more administrative procedures to [Maryland Reclamation Associates] its only remaining remedy is to seek compensation for deliberate actions of the Defendant that have denied MRA the use of its property and [Maryland Department of the Environment] to operate a rubble landfill in Harford County, Maryland," the suit states.

Richard Schafer, MRA's president, said Thursday the suit seeks to remedy what he said amounts to a "taking" of the property by the county, since its actions did not allow him and the company's other owners to realize its full value. One of Schafer's original partners, Larry G. Stancill, died in 2011.

According to the claims filed in the suit, "The defendant has deprived MRA of the beneficial use of its property and its investment backed business expectations associated therewith," in alleged violation of the Maryland Constitution.

The suit also claims the county's "acts and omissions were final policy decisions made by a final-decision making body [the county council] which set in motion a change of events which were the moving force behind the actions of the Defendant and which violated the Plaintiff's due process rights to be free from arbitrary or irrational zoning and government actions."

"As a direct and proximate result of the Defendants violations of the Plaintiff's property rights associated with the beneficial use of its property, the Defendant unlawfully rendered the plaintiff's property valueless," the claim concludes.

"The county does not comment on pending litigation," Harford County government spokesman Bob Thomas said Monday.

According to the suit, MRA spent in excess of $325,000 for engineering on the 68-acre property, which is off Gravel Hill Road in the Webster Village area north of Havre de Grace, and then spent $732,000 to buy the property in 1990, nearly a year after the county council had included it in the county's Solid Waste Management Plan and the Maryland Department of the Environment issued permits for the landfill.

During this period, however, there was growing community opposition to the project and within four days of the Feb. 9, 1990 settlement on the property, the suit notes, the council began considering a resolution to remove the rubblefill from the county master plan, which eventually passed. The suit noted that one of the sponsors of the resolution, then-council president Jeffrey D. Wilson had not been a council member in 1989 and the other, the late Joanne Parrott, had abstained from voting on the plan the first time.

Wilson was appointed to the council in late 1989 after the late John Hardwicke, who had supported the rubblefill, resigned to become a state administrative judge. Wilson won a full term in 1990 and Mrs. Parrott was re-elected, while three council members who had continued to support the rubblefill project, including Schafer's late father, John W. Schafer, were defeated in their re-election bids and replaced by three members supported by the rubblefill opponents.

With a solid majority against the rubblefill, the new council that took office in late 1990 next enacted new zoning regulations on buffers and other development standards that the MRA property, because of its size and location, could not meet. During the unsuccessful legal fight to have the legislation overturned, a Harford County judge rejected the company's claim it had relied on the council's earlier master plan approval as a guarantee it could proceed with its project, saying in effect that no such guarantees existed.

Although the suit does not expressly contain details of the politics surrounding the rubblefill project, it does lay out, in seven pages, the chronological order of the county council's actions, both as a legislative body and later as the county's final zoning authority, as well as the courts' rulings on the legal challenges brought by MRA. None of the seven county council members who approved the zoning legislation in 1991 was still in office when the zoning appeal case that the legislation spawned finally played out at the county level in February 2007.

Maryland Reclamation Associates is represented by its longtime lawyer, William D. Hooper Jr. of Bel Air, and by John R. Greiber Jr. and Robert H.B. Cawood, both of Annapolis.

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