No choice but to keep fighting [Editorial]

The Aegis

The saga of the Gravel Hill rubblefill – that wasn’t – has become one of those stories that never goes away.

Last week, the saga took one of its most bizarre turns when a six-person jury in Harford County Circuit Court decided the developers of the ill-fated project are entitled to $45.4 million in damages from the county government because the county was responsible for what the law calls a “regulatory taking” of the project, without providing the owners just compensation.

The judgment temporarily leaves county taxpayers on the hook for all that money, no small amount, despite the county administration’s efforts to downplay the significance of the $45.4 million. An appeal will follow and, most likely, another appeal after that, until every legal avenue has been exhausted to avoid paying even one penny of the judgment.

Prior to the regulatory taking suit being filed by owner Maryland Reclamation Associates in 2013 – the suit originally sought $100 million in damages – the company had lost every round in every court in its attempt to stick the rubble dump in the middle of the historically African-American community off of Gravel Hill Road north of Havre de Grace.

Certainly millions of dollars were spent by both sides in fighting what many saw as a legal war of attrition. Laws that Maryland Reclamation said were passed by the county just to derail its project were upheld by judges right up the line. Failing that, the company sought zoning variances to the very laws it claimed were unconstitutional. Those variances were denied and the denial upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, in 2010.

At that point, MRA founder Richard Schafer said his project and his 55-acre property for which he and fellow investors paid over $700,000 for in 1989 was essentially worthless, so he sued the county for making it so, and last week it appears he won, or at least in the eyes of six Harford County residents.

The county has already spent in the neighborhood of $500,000 defending this suit alone and can expect to spend multiples of that going forward, also risking the 10 percent post-judgment interest that will start accruing in about three weeks. Taken against the prospect of having to come up with $50 million or more, they have little choice but to keep fighting.

Unfortunately, the time for settling this matter has long passed. In hindsight, perhaps the county should have aggressively pursued a settlement after the 2010 Court of Appeals decision, but we’re not going to second guess for the simple reason we believe the county has always been right in its effort to scuttle this dump. We still believe it was right, and the courts agreed, as well, or until last week. You stick by your principles when a community’s future is hanging in the balance.

The problem now, of course, is those could turn out to be pretty expensive principles. Six laymen won’t have the final say, but the judges who do will be bound to follow a record developed in this lawsuit, no matter what precedents they may apply to interpret that record. The lawyer who represented the county thought he had a strong case, as did the people who were overseeing the county’s defense, which includes the county executive.

But the other side, which as plaintiff had the burden of proving its claim of unlawful regulatory taking, also thought it had a strong case to present, and the jury sided with them. As the Gravel Hill saga goes on, the money meter will keep ticking – with no clear end in sight – but the county has no choice but to keep fighting.

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