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Harford proceeds with appeal of $45 million rubblefill judgment in state courts

A Circuit Court judge has turned down Harford County's motions for a new trial and to set aside the $45.4 million judgment against the county in the Gravel Hill rubblefill case. The county's next move will be an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, a spokesperson said.
A Circuit Court judge has turned down Harford County's motions for a new trial and to set aside the $45.4 million judgment against the county in the Gravel Hill rubblefill case. The county's next move will be an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, a spokesperson said. (Ted Hendricks / The Aegis)

Harford County is moving ahead with its appeal of a more than $45 million judgment imposed by a county jury in April when it found the local government engaged in a “regulatory taking” of property in the Gravel Hill area near Havre de Grace proposed for a rubble landfill.

The county is filing the appeal with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, despite the trial judge’s denial of its motions challenging the jury’s decision.

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Judge John Addison Howard, a retired Baltimore City judge who presided over the trial in Harford County Circuit Court, issued a denial Tuesday of the county’s motion to revise judgment, a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a motion for a new trial.

“The county filed these motions as part of our due diligence and the standard practice of asking the judge to render a different decision based on the evidence, but we were always prepared to file an appeal which will now move forward,” county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby wrote in an email Wednesday.

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County officials expect to file at the state level “in the next week or two,” Mumby stated.

The six-person jury issued its verdict April 17. The $45.4 million judgment had to be paid in full within 30 days or the county would face accruing interest at a rate of 10 percent per year, attorneys for the plaintiff, rubblefill operator Maryland Reclamation Associates Inc., said at the time.

The Harford County Council approved a request in early May by County Attorney Melissa Lambert to retain outside counsel from the firm Rosenberg Martin Greenberg LLP, of Baltimore, to represent Harford at the state appellate level.

The possibility that Harford County taxpayers could be on the hook for as much as $45.4 million from decisions and actions of the county government almost 30 years ago is in the hands of a county Circuit Court jury.

Richard Schafer, MRA’s president and CEO and a resident of the Havre de Grace area, appealed to the county government Tuesday to pay the judgment and avoid further interest charges and legal expenses.

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“I think it’s time, actually way past time for Harford County to recognize what a jury, made up of members from our county and that you represent, decided,” he said during the public comment portion of the County Council’s regular legislative session in Bel Air. “In other words, it’s time to pay the debt.”

Schafer encouraged the council to pass a resolution telling the county executive to “cut the bleed and pay the bill.”

Council President Richard Slutzky and council attorney Charles Kearney cut in as Schafer was speaking, noting the county government and MRA are still in litigation.

“The matter hasn’t been resolved, so I really don’t see the point here of going forward while it’s still pending in the courts,” Kearney said.

Schafer countered that “there is absolutely nothing pending in the court,” citing Judge Howard’s ruling.

No one from the county’s law department was at the meeting to speak on the matter, so Slutzky allowed Schafer to proceed.

More than a quarter century ago, St. James A.M.E. Church and its Civil War-era cemetery were in danger of being overwhelmed by a 68-acre rubble landfill planned in their backyard, off Gravel Hill Road north of Havre de Grace.

Schafer’s company has been battling the county since 1989, when plans were introduced to develop 55 acres off of Gravel Hill Road near Havre de Grace for disposal of construction and demolition debris.

Several new members of the County Council — including current Harford County Executive Barry Glassman — were elected in 1990 as community opposition to the rubblefill mounted. The project had received initial approvals from the county and the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“The then-County Council set out on a mission to destroy MRA by passing endless bills and resolutions,” Schafer said Tuesday.

Only one bill approved in 1991, 91-10, was upheld by the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, in 2010. Schafer filed suit against the county in 2013. Bill 91-10, with its requirements of a 100-acre area for rubblefills and that they be 1,000 feet from a church or residence, was front and center when the case went to trial in April.

Attorneys for MRA argued the 1991 law effectively made the Gravel Hill property worthless.

The county’s legal team, in its motions to Judge Howard, challenged the jury’s verdict and the trial on procedural grounds, according to court documents.

They made arguments such as there was not enough evidence to show the defendant sought a variance on 200-foot buffer requirements that had been in place before Bill 91-10 was passed, meaning “there is no causation between Bill 91-10 and the taking,” according to Howard’s six-page opinion.

“The evidence presented at trial generated facts from which it was properly left for the jury to decide whether there were alternate uses for the property,” Howard wrote.

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