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U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear Harford County rubblefill appeal, potentially ending 30-year legal battle

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to examine the case of a Harford County rubble landfill Tuesday.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to examine the case of a Harford County rubble landfill Tuesday. (BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO)

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to examine the case of a Harford County rubble landfill Tuesday — ostensibly ending a legal battle that has endured for nearly three decades.

A Harford County jury had awarded the property owners, Maryland Reclamation Associates, $45.5 million in 2018, saying the county engaged in a “regulatory taking” of the 55-acre property on Gravel Hill Road near Havre de Grace. However, Maryland’s appellate court overturned the case last year and the state’s high court upheld the lower court’s ruling in April.

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MRA president and founder Richard Schafer pledged to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court last spring. The high court declined to hear the case Tuesday.

Schafer expressed disappointment in the decision, but acknowledged that convincing the nation’s highest court to hear one’s case is “a tough hurdle to get over, to begin with."

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William Hooper, an attorney for MRA, said the next steps for the company were still being decided.

“We have to evaluate what, if anything, we can do," Hooper said.

Schafer said he and his legal team would look into any and all options.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said in a statement that the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case was a victory for county residents.

Glassman has long opposed the project and made it a key part of his 1990 campaign for a seat on the county council, when the rubblefill was a contentious issue.

“This victory belongs to the citizens of Harford County, especially those who first stood up to protect their community,” he said in a statement. “It also vindicates our decision not to use county tax dollars to pay MRA to settle the case. Instead, we successfully defended our position that local governments have the ability to adopt responsible development regulations.”

In a written statement, Schafer critiqued the Supreme Court’s decision,noting that “this failure to grant certiorari lets stand a Maryland Court of Appeals decision that sees justice in an administrative procedure that would have merely duplicated what an impartial jury of Harford County residents already decided in a two-week trial.

”Such after-the-fact judicial reasoning is constitutionally inequitable, capricious in result and flies in the face of common sense and reason," he sadded.

MRA purchased the site in 1990 for the purpose of developing a rubblefill to deposit waste from construction sites and debris from demolished buildings. However, the company was unable to get approval due in large part to a 1991 bill from the Harford County Council that made development regulations for such a facility more strict.

Schafer and MRA sued the county, but the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2010 ruled in favor of the defendent. In 2013, MRA filed suit again, initially seeking $100 million in damages, claiming that the county’s actions in the 1990s had made the property worthless and that the firm should be compensated.

In 2018, a six-person jury of the Harford County’s Circuit Court awarded MRA $45.5 million in damages, believed to be among the largest civil judgments in the history of that court.

The county appealed the judgment, and in 2019 the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned the circuit court jury’s decision.

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MRA appealed and, in April, the Maryland Court of Appeals once again ruled in favor of Harford County, upholding a lower state court’s 2019 decision to reverse the $45.4 million judgment against the county government.

The judges of Maryland’s highest court 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 company has filed at least five cases related to the rubblefill, stretching back to 1990, according to a petition for a writ of certiorari filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The rubblefill controversy is considered a watershed political event in the county, one that ended several prominent Harford County political careers and helped launch several others, including Glassman’s.

Residents of the Gravel Hill 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.

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

The would-be rubble landfill property is near a historically Black community, home to St. James A.M.E. Church and its Civil War-era cemetery. Gravel Hill is also 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.

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