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I wish I could say I was astute enough to figure this out myself, but alas, it was bayblog's readers (and some of my regular sources) who alerted me to this interesting development:

Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote the Appeals Court decision yesterday that master plans for growth in counties are not binding, thus paving the way for the 4,300-home Terrapin Run Project in Western Maryland. Here is what he said, according to the Sun's Tim Wheeler:

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Cathell, writing for the majority, said that "the use of the words 'conform' and 'visions' were never intended by the legislature to impose absolute requirements on local governments in their practices involving their local land use programs."

Cathell, a native of Berlin who has been on the highest court since 1997, has not been environmentalists' favorite judge. Here's an abbreviated timeline of the land-use decisions he has written during his time on the bench:

(Unless otherwise noted, all of this information came from Sun stories, past and present)

1998:  The Maryland Court of Appeals upheld a Harford County judge's decision to strike an anti-growth initiative from the Nov. 3 ballot.The seven-judge panel issued an order affirming a lower court decision to dismiss a proposed charter amendment that would have frozen development for a year in the fast-growing county.

Judge Cathell joined some of the other judges in questioning whether the voters shouldn't simply elect representatives who would tighten controls on growth rather than amend the county's charter.

"Whatever happened to the traditional way these battles were fought between environmentalists and developers?" the judge asked. "You kick their bums out [of elected office], and after four or six years they kick your bums out."

1998:  Maryland's highest court cleared the way for the development of 103 acres on the southwestern edge of Annapolis as an upscale subdivision of 200 homes.The Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a lower court ruling that the city did not violate state law when it annexed the property owned by Chrisland Corp., even if it isolated a section of county land south of the parcel on the Annapolis Neck Peninsula.

Anne Arundel County had contended that state law barred the annexation because it would create an island of county land off Bywater Road near Forest Drive.

Cathell wrote for the unanimous court that the isolated peninsula "remains contiguous the remainder of Anne Arundel County" because it is bordered on three sides by county waterways.   "Anne Arundel County includes all of the waterways that surround the remainder of the Bywater Peninsula," he wrote.

2002- Maryland's highest court ruled that restrictions and benefits of property ownership are conveyed to the new owner with the deed, including the past owner's right to ask for and possibly receive relief from environmental protections that limit construction.

The Court of Appeals said a local land-use panel was wrong to say that Anne Arundel County builder Richaer Roeser created his own hardship by buying land that he knew fell under numerous restrictions enacted while the previous owner held the property.

"When title is transferred, it takes with it all the encumbrances and burdens that attach to title; but it also takes with it all the benefits and rights inherent in ownership," Cathell wrote for the unanimous court.

(Bayblog note: This case was noted in Environment Maryland's report as one of the worst Critical Area Law violations.)

2003: Maryland's highest court ruled on the side of a wealthy sportsman's bid to keep a hunting lodge and cabins that he built without permission on a remote Nanticoke River island.

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In a 4-3 vote, the Court of Appeals told Wicomico County officials to reconsider their refusal to grant a variance that would allow the cedar-shingled buildings - put up without local, state or federal permits - to remain within the 100-foot "critical area" buffer of the bay and its tributaries."The landowner, Edwin H. Lewis, an avid hunter, art collector and pilot who made his fortune as an executive with the Tommy Hilfiger apparel company and other manufacturers, failed three years ago to persuade the county's zoning appeals board to allow two of the buildings to remain in the environmentally sensitive zone.

The state's Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Commission, which has monitored local rules on waterfront development since 1984, opposed Lewis in a three-year battle that began before Wicomico's planning and zoning appeals boards, then moved to the courts.

The Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that county officials had failed to muster enough evidence to show that Lewis' request for a variance should be denied.

In a 52-page decision written by Cathell, the Wicomico zoning appeals board was chastised for misinterpreting two recent court decisions.

"Although we normally defer to an administrative agency's decision regarding the facts of a hearing, we do not defer to the agency when it has committed an error of law," Cathell wrote.

(Bayblog note; the Lewis case has been mentioned by both environmentalists and regulators as one of the most flagrant violations of the law; it resulted in the General Assembly's tightening up of the law in past session, and remains in lawmakers' minds as they continue to push for a stronger law. It was also on Environment Maryland's list of violations.)

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