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Owner of proposed Harford rubblefill property plans to appeal reversal of $45.4 million judgment to Supreme Court

The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, has ruled in favor of Harford County in the latest legal challenge by a company that sought approval more 30 years ago to build a rubblefill in the Gravel Hill area near Havre de Grace. The owner of the 55-acre site off Gravel Hill Road says he and his attorneys plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Maryland high court’s opinion, issued Friday, upholds a lower state court’s decision last year to reverse the $45.4 million judgment against the county government issued by a local jury in April of 2018 in favor of the plaintiff, Maryland Reclamation Associates Inc.

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“This case goes back to when I was first elected to the Harford County Council, and this final decision by Maryland’s highest court affirms Harford County’s actions and our appeal of the $45.4 million judgment," Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said in a statement issued Monday.

Richard Schafer, president and founder of MRA, does not plan to end a legal battle that has stretched for three decades.

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“It is what it is, and we’ll see what the Supreme Court has to say about it,” Schafer said of the Maryland court’s ruling.

The six-person jury rendered the judgment two years ago — potentially among the largest awarded by a Harford County Circuit Court jury — and its verdict that the county government conducted a “regulatory taking” of the 55-acre site off of Gravel Hill Road.

That site was purchased in 1990 for the purpose of developing a rubblefill to deposit waste from construction sites and debris from demolished buildings. It is near a historically African-American community, the birthplace of Civil War soldier Sgt. Alfred Hilton, the only person born in Harford County to earn the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military decoration — for his actions in battle.

Glassman was running for County Council that same year that MRA was seeking approvals from the county and state to develop the Gravel Hill site. The rubblefill was a major issue in the local elections in 1990. Glassman, who grew up in nearby Level, made opposition to the project and advocacy for the Gravel Hill neighborhood a key part of his campaign for council.

“I’ll never lose Gravel Hill; it will always be in my flock,” Glassman, who raises sheep, said during a community reunion at St. James A.M.E. Church in 2016.

Maryland Reclamation Associates has spent 30 years battling the county in the legal arena after the company was unable to secure approval to develop the rubblefill, in large part because of a bill passed by the County Council in 1991 that made the regulations to develop such a facility much more stringent.

The company’s efforts have not been successful so far, even with prior appearances before Maryland’s high court — the Court of Appeals last ruled in favor of Harford County in 2010, and MRA filed suit again in 2013, initially seeking $100 million in damages.

Attorneys for MRA argued in their most recent case that the county’s actions in the early 1990s had, in effect, made the site worthless and that the local government should compensate the firm. The damages sought, $45.4 million, were based on the property’s value in 2010 plus 6 percent interest since that time.

“I’ll be darned if I was going to let the county get it,” Schafer said Tuesday. “They’re trying to get my property without paying for it, which is unconstitutional. They have destroyed the value of the property.”

The jury agreed with the plaintiffs, but county officials pledged to appeal even as the judgment collected interest for each day it remained unpaid. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed the judgement in the summer of 2019, agreeing with Harford County attorneys’ argument that MRA had not met the state’s statute of limitations for filing its lawsuit.

The company appealed the lower court’s verdict. The high court sided with the county, however. The judges stated that MRA erred when it pursued a legal remedy for its claim that the county had taken its property, rather than seeking a variance from the county’s Board of Appeals, thus having “failed to exhaust its administrative remedies,” according to the opinion.

“The Board has the authority to grant relief in the form of a variance where the property owner can establish an unconstitutional taking arising from the application of the zoning regulation,” according to the opinion.

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Schafer strongly disagreed with the ruling, saying that “I think the court was wrong.” He lamented that “there will never be a [property] takings case brought in the state of Maryland.”

Schafer said he and his business partners would have been able to operate the rubblefill, had the Court of Appeals ruled in MRA’s favor in 2010, but the court upheld the County Council’s 1991 law, leading to his attorneys’ argument that the land had been rendered worthless.

The Harford County jury agreed with that argument.

“Now, the judges say the jury doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but the residents of Harford County know what they’re taking about,” Schafer said.

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