Judge rules against Prince George's in Laurel church case

A federal district court judge has ruled Prince George's County must once again consider the application of Reaching Hearts International for sewer service on the church's West Laurel property, saying the County Council's decision in September to grant service on only a portion of the property did not comply with an earlier court ruling.

Judge Roger Titus's opinion, handed down today, is the latest victory for the church in a long line of litigation with the county over the property, which the county has said is environmentally sensitive, where the church wants to build new facilities and a school.

Titus wrote that the county's reasons for denying a portion of the church's application were based on similar environmental arguments that were "found utterly wanting by a jury" in a 2008 case for which Titus also served as judge, in which the jury determined the county's stance constituted religious discrimination.

In his opinion Wednesday, in which he vacated the county's September denial of the church's application, Titus took an almost frustrated tone, noting he wouldn't accept the same arguments from the county again.

"Déjà vu simply will not do," the judge wrote.

Titus also expressed hope that the county would proceed fairly in its next review of the church's application, which is due within 60 days.

"The Court is cautiously optimistic that the County Council will, at last, give fair consideration to RHI's application and bring this matter to an end," he wrote.

The church's battle with the county to develop the property has been waging for more than eight years, and has cost the county more than $4.5 million in damages, legal fees and other expenses and costs, Titus wrote.

That amount includes more than $3.7 million in damages awarded to the church by the jury in 2008, which found the county's actions had "imposed a substantial burden on RHI's exercise of its religion," Titus wrote.

The total amount of money spent on the case by the county, Titus wrote, "is a fairly high price to pay in a period of economic distress."

Ward Coe, the church's attorney, said he is happy with the judge's ruling, but that it's "unfortunate" the issue has been dragged out for so long by the county.

"What's sad about this is that the church has always been willing to sit down with its neighbors and its representatives on the council to discuss what they want to build there, but they can't get out of the starting block," Coe said. "And I think (the church is) still willing. They don't want to jam something down the neighbors' throats. They want to be good neighbors."

County Council Chair Andrea Harrison issued a statement Wednesday saying the council is reviewing the ruling and will address it once they return from recess in January.

Karen Campbell, a council spokesperson, said there would be no other statements on the ruling until that time.

A call to Council member Mary Lehman, who represents Laurel, was not immediately returned.

The county's now-vacated September decision was to grant the church new sewer services on 3.6 acres of its property, but not on an additional 10 acres of its property closer to the Rocky Gorge Reservoir, a major source of the county's drinking water. The county had argued that decision was in line with the court's findings in 2008.

The county also argued that the church had intentionally misled the court by changing its development plans for the property.

In his opinion Wednesday, Titus wrote that the county's September decision "proceeded on multiple errors of law concerning this Court's 2008 Opinion," which he said did not require the county to approve the application or the church to file the exact same application, but that any church application be processed – and in a non-discriminatory manner.

Titus wrote that the court in 2008 found the county had produced no evidence that the church's plans would have a negative impact on Rocky Gorge, nor did it "carry its burden" in demonstrating it would have a different impact than "surrounding large-lot residential developments or from Dugan's Estates, which had its water and sewer category change application approved despite the fact that it was traversed by a stream that ran off directly into the reservoir."

Of the claim the church had misled the court, Titus wrote, "This Court knows when it has been misled; in this instance it certainly was not."

Titus also made note of the council's "structure and tradition" in land-use decisions of council members deferring to and voting along with their council colleague who represents the district in which the land is located, which in this case is Lehman.

Titus wrote that "earlier battles" with the church were led by former Council member Thomas Dernoga, who is also a former president of the West Laurel Civic Association, and that current battles with the church are being led by Lehman, also a former president of the association.

Titus wrote that court information showed the association believes that "'another church is about the last thing we need,'" and then suggested county council members "need to step back and ponder what structure and tradition have brought them in this case," considering the heavy bills the county has incurred.

Titus awarded no new damages, but wrote that if the county again denies the church's application, he would permit a trial to be held "on the question of whether the 2011 actions of the County constitute a continuation of the discrimination that resulted in a multi-million dollar verdict against the County, including consideration of additional damages, legal fees, and costs."

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