The Maryland Court of Appeals last week set aside a Court of Special Appeals ruling that the assessments property owners and developers pay Harford County for future road improvements are an illegal tax.
Richard K. Jacobsen, a Baltimore attorney representing property owners in the lawsuit filed against the county in 1991, said the Court of Appeals' decision to vacate the lower court's ruling means the case will "begin all over again at the county level."
The property owners, Joseph J. Wielepski of the 3600 block of Day Road in Darlington and his brother and sister-in-law, Stanley and Janet Wielepski of the 3500 block of Day Road, first sought to subdivide their land into home lots in 1991.
While they were obtaining county approvals, the Wielepskis learned that 1990 subdivision regulations required that anyone subdividing land into more than five lots pay for road improvements themselves. The county's engineer said the work would cost $97,000.
Since that pushed development costs above the market value of their land, the Wielepskis abandoned the project and began a series of appeals.
After failing to gain satisfaction at the county level, the Wielepskis filed suit in Harford Circuit Court in February 1993. That court upheld the county's position.
The Wielepskis appealed again to the Court of Special Appeals, which ruled that the assessments constitute an illegal tax. County officials appealed that decision to the state's highest court.
Meanwhile, after the favorable ruling Jan. 5, the Wielepskis filed a class-action suit in Circuit Court on behalf of a yet-to-be-determined number of plaintiffs.
The class-action suit sought compensation for all yet-to-be-named property owners who either paid the alleged illegal tax or were forced to drop plans to subdivide because of it. The property owners contended that the county, not they, should pay for road improvements after their land is subdivided for homes.
"The state Court of Appeals' decision probably will save two or three months for all concerned," said Alfred N. Kramer, one of three Aberdeen attorneys who filed the class-action suit.
Court of Appeals judges vacated the Jan. 5 decision because attorneys for both sides now agree that proper administrative procedures were not followed by the county or the plaintiffs.
"No one is to blame in this instance," Mr. Jacobsen said.
A Circuit Court decision on the class-action status has been delayed pending a decision on the legality of the county's road improvement fee.