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Harford jury awards $45.4 million judgment against county in Gravel Hill rubblefill suit

A Harford County jury Tuesday awarded the owners of a one-time proposed rubble landfill near Havre de Grace $45.5 million in damages from the county government.

Believed to be among the largest civil judgments in the history of the county Circuit Court, the jury of three men and three women deliberated about four hours over Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning before announcing by their verdict that the county had engaged in a “regulatory taking” of the 55-acre property off Gravel Hill Road, where Maryland Reclamation Associates had proposed locating the rubble landfill or rubblefill, a place to bury construction and building demolition debris.

Richard D. Schafer, Maryland Reclamation Associates’ founder and president, said the verdict had “vindicated” his plan for the rubblefill, first proposed more than 30 years ago, as well as his efforts in the ensuing years to fight the county’s opposition to the project and then to seek compensation for the money he and his investors, several of whom are now deceased, had spent to acquire the property, engineer the rubblefill and then defend their right to use it before county zoning boards and in state and federal courts.

Schafer said the county “had done everything” to block the project and added: “This is an example of why people have lost faith in their government.”

“What the county did to Rick Schafer was wrong way back in 1990 and is still wrong today,” said Brett Ingerman, of DLA Piper LLP, who was Maryland Reclamation’s chief counsel for the trial. He said if County Executive Barry Glassman has “a shred of decency,” he will pay the judgment and finally lay the Gravel Hill rubblefill controversy to rest.

That’s unlikely to happen. Although the plaintiff’s lawyers said the county has approximately 30 days to pay the $45,420,076 judgment in full, at which time it will begin to accrue interest at 10 percent daily, an appeal is likely, according to county administration spokesperson Cindy Mumby.

“There are numerous appealable issues which the County intends to fully pursue at the appellate level,” Mumby said via email. “This continues to be active litigation which we cannot comment on further.”

Illegal taking claimed

The Maryland Reclamation Associates’ lawsuit was filed in 2013, after the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, in 2010 upheld the county’s denial of a series of zoning variances MRA had sought to overcome area and setback requirements around its property.

MRA originally sought $100 million in damages for the allegedly “illegal taking” by the county without fair compensation, citing property rights enumerated in the Maryland Constitution.

During closing arguments to conclude the two-week trial on Monday, MRA’s lawyers asked the jury to award the $45,4 million in damages based on their valuation of the property in 2010 and interest at 6 percent since.

In his closing argument, the county’s lead lawyer, G. Jefferson Blomquist, insisted there was no illegal taking of the property because MRA’s investors knew, or should have known, that under the zoning laws in force at the time “they could never put a rubblefill on that property.” He said MRA was not entitled to any compensation.

In his instructions to the jury, retired Baltimore City Circuit Judge John Addison Howard told the jury members they could only award damages if they concluded the county’s actions had “gone too far,” with “a high degree of interference,” and those actions in turn, deprived MRA of its ability to use and enjoy its property, or deprived MRA of economic benefit “for any reasonable purpose.”

According to the lawsuit, failure to obtain the zoning variances, some of which were imposed by a 1991 county law enacted after the proposed rubblefill project was well along in the county and state approval processes, had the effect of rendering the property worthless.

But the county, which has aggressively defended this suit and previous litigation involving the rubblefill, claimed zoning code conditions that a rubblefill have a 200-foot buffer area from adjoining property lines were already on the books when MRA began seeking approvals for the project in 1989.

Ingerman told the jury the county’s defense was based on a “lawyer’s made-up argument presented to the jury 29 years later,” and also accused some of the county officials who were elected on an anti-rubblefill voter groundswell in 1990 of engaging in a coverup as they sought to sink the landfill project for good with a series of county council resolutions and legislation passed in 1991-92.

While Blomquist acknowledged Bill 91-10 was designed to make it tougher to develop rubblefills anywhere in the county, by also requiring they be at least 100 acres in area and 1,000 feet from a house or church, he said the 200-foot buffer requirement already on the books was never waived or modified by the county.

Despite the testimony of plaintiff’s witnesses, including the public works and planning directors at the time, that an alternate plan to construct the buffer as the rubble mounds progressed was suggested by MRA as a way around the 200-foot rule – and appears in written correspondence – there was no waiver.

“They [MRA] knew the only way they could get around [200 feet] was to seek a zoning variance, which they chose not to do,” Blomquist said, conceding that such a variance probably would not have been granted, which is eventually what happened.

Political issue

Both sides in the lawsuit accused the other of engaging in political intrigue, and the rubblefill controversy has long been seen as a watershed political event in the county, one that ended several prominent local political careers and helped launch several others, including that of Glassman, the current county executive.

Residents of the surrounding community mobilized against the project as it was receiving what appeared at the time to be initial state and county approvals as the 1990 county election approached.

Glassman won his first office, a County Council seat in 1990, as several veteran incumbent Democrat council members who supported the rubblefill were swept out of office and replaced mostly by Republicans like Glassman. One of those council incumbents defeated was the late John W. Schafer, Richard Schafer’s father.

Richard Schafer said the judge had mandated that the two sides try to settle the case before it went to trial, but they could not reach an agreement. Schafer, who is 66, said he was 37 when he began working on the rubblefill project and he has spent the intervening years running a small contracting firm, while using some of his earnings to continue fighting the county.

He also said documents the county produced during the discovery phase of the case showed the exhaustive steps county officials had taken to block the rubblefill and “to try to bankrupt us,” while also engaging in what he called “a cover up.”

Blomquist, who served in the county Department of Law in the 1990s and was involved in some of the earlier rubblefill litigation, was hired as outside counsel to defend the latest suit in late 2015. Through this winter, acting on requests from the county administration, the County Council had authorized spending at least $500,000 for Blomquist’s services.

William D. Hooper Jr., MRA’s corporate legal counsel and an investor in the rubblefill project, said the county government had overstepped its authority on numerous occasions and had opportunities to settle for less money than Tuesday’s judgment, “but wouldn’t budge.”

“This would be a good example of government gone wild in trampling on the rights of its citizens,” said Hooper, who served as the county’s chief attorney in the early 1970s.

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