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Maryland court reverses $45 million rubblefill judgment against Harford County

Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals has reversed a judgment of more than $45 million that had been levied against the Harford County government last year, according to the county executive.

“It’s been a legal challenge, and to some degree it was an important case for us, both financially and legally,” County Executive Barry Glassman said in an interview Thursday.

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Glassman announced the news of the court’s decision Thursday on his official @HarfordExec Twitter account, stating that there had been a “great legal victory” for Harford after the appeals court reversed the judgment. A Harford County jury found in April 2018 that the county government was engaged in a “regulatory taking” of Maryland Reclamation Associates’ 55-acre property in the Gravel Hill community near Havre de Grace and ordered the county to pay a judgment of $45.4 million.

Harford County declined to pay the judgment and filed an appeal in the state courts after the county trial judged rejected the county’s appeal of the jury’s verdict. The judgment has been collecting interest daily since last spring.

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Richard Schafer, Maryland Reclamation Associates’ founder and president, said he is disappointed that the Court of Special Appeals reversed the decision of six citizens of Harford County who heard all of the evidence and awarded MRA more than $45 million.

Two Harford County Circuit Court judges also denied Harford County’s argument that the statute of limitations barred MRA’s takings claim, Schafer said.

“It is unfair that any governmental entity can delay a final decision on a zoning issue for decades, and then after a taking occurred, argue that the landowner waited too long to sue,” Schafer said in a statement. “The decision from the Court of Special Appeals impacts not just MRA, but any citizen who has a takings claim whose property has been taken by regulation.”

He cited the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Palozzolo, 533 US at 627, which held: “It ought not be the rule that the government be allowed to put an expiration date on the Takings Clause.”

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Schafer said MRA “absolutely” intends to petition the Court of Appeals to review this decision and reinstate the award made by the Harford County jury.

"Absolutely we’ll fight this to the end,” Schafer said. “We’re prepared to go to the Supreme Court.”

The company, also known as MRA, had been working since 1989 to develop a facility on its property to handle rubble, construction debris and other waste. MRA had sought county approvals to develop the rubblefill, but the county enacted laws in the early 1990s making the process of developing such a facility much more difficult, and local zoning authorities denied the company’s application for variances.

The company has sought legal relief at the county and state level over the years, and the case went to Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, in 2010. The high court ruled in favor of the county, though.

MRA filed another lawsuit in 2013, and that case came before a jury in 2018. Lawyers for Harford County argued in state court that MRA was not in compliance with the state’s statute of limitations when filing its most recent lawsuit, an argument the appeals court upheld.

“We are well aware that we are vacating a significant judgement rendered against the county,” the court stated in its decision. “Nevertheless, because the cause of action accrued in this case more than three years before MRA filed its inverse condemnation claim the statute of limitations mandates that its judgement be reversed.”

Harford County was the primary plaintiff in the current case, but the Maryland Association of Counties, of which Glassman is president for 2019, filed a friend of the court brief in support of the county. A number of other Maryland counties and municipalities also signed onto another amicus brief filed by Montgomery County, according to Glassman and the court decision.

Glassman noted this case is “a zoning case similar to that of which many counties handle over the years.”

“The county had argued all along that the statute of limitations had long passed, and that was our argument in the Harford County Circuit Court and has been our argument all along, and so today the Court of Special Appeals reaffirmed that position,” he said.

Aegis reporter Erika Butler contributed to this story.

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