Other than its trees being more mature, the former sand and gravel mining pits along the west side of rural Gravel Hill Road north of Havre de Grace haven’t changed much in appearance in 25 years.
A rusting swing gate with a “no trespassing” sign across an unpaved road leading to the interior property bars entry to vehicles, but there isn’t any fencing. Just lots of trees.
Nearby is posted a public notice from the Maryland Department of the Environment advertising a public hearing on a permit to use the property for a “rubble landfill” to be held at Havre de Grace High School. The hearing date: Sept. 30, 1991.
Around 11 a.m. Tuesday, a six-member jury sitting in Harford County Circuit Court decided the owner of the property, which one lawyer likened to a “moonscape,” is entitled to receive $45,420,076 in damages from Harford County government for what, in legal terms, was a “regulatory taking” of the property without giving just compensation to the owner, a local group called Maryland Reclamation Associates.
In a two-week civil trial that was some 29 years in the making, Maryland Reclamation Associates, or MRA, claimed the county government had engaged in a series of actions, beginning in 1990, to prevent the business from filling in the former surface mining craters on the property with millions of tons of construction debris and demolition rubble.
The rubble would have been piled up in mounds six to seven stories high then covered with earth, according to plans submitted to the county in 1989 and introduced during the trial.
According to MRA’s witnesses, in addition to rubble collected from demolished buildings and other structures, the county had asked in 1989-90, and MRA agreed, to use the site for the disposal of rubble containing the cancer-causing material asbestos. The county also had told MDE the overall plan was acceptable, according to various public records, and the state agency was moving forward with issuing a permit for the filling operations.
But the rubblefill never received final approval, either from the county, or from the state, which also had to issue its own permit for the rubblefill.
The surrounding community, predominantly African-American and one of the oldest in the county, opposed the rubblefill, and a group of county officials elected in late 1990 soon changed the zoning laws that made it next to impossible for the site to be used as MRA proposed. What followed was years of litigation pitting MRA against the county in which, until Tuesday, the county had always prevailed.
The $45.4 million judgment, believed to be among the largest ever in the Harford court, will be appealed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, a spokesperson for County Executive Barry Glassman, said Wednesday.
Were the county to pay it, the money amounts to about 8 percent of the $571 million the county expects to spend in its next fiscal year to run general government operations, fund schools and police and public safety.
Put another way, the money is roughly equivalent to 38.5 cents on the county’s existing base tax rate of 89.37 cents per $100 of assessed property value. (Each one cent of the tax rate generates approximately $2.6 million in revenue, according to county finance officials.)
County residents should not be concerned about tax increases or cuts in services because of the judgment, said Cindy Mumby, Glassman’s spokesperson, who reiterated that as far as the county is concerned, the case is far from over.
“The County has the resources to manage this judgment,” Mumby wrote in an emailed statement. “The county executive is well-versed in the case; however, our attorneys have advised him not to comment publicly because we are in the midst of continuing litigation.”
Glassman, a Republican, won his first elected office, a seat on the County Council in the 1990 election that many people believed turned out to be a referendum against the proposed rubblefill.
As a council member for eight years, Glassman supported the legislation approved in the early 1990s that county officials then, and now, say was drawn to specifically halt a rubble landfill or other waste dump on the Gravel Hill Road property.
As county executive, Glassman inherited the lawsuit that resulted in Tuesday’s judgment, which was filed in 2013, after MRA lost a protracted case to obtain zoning variances to use the property that went up to the Court of Appeals, which ruled in the county’s favor.
At that point, MRA decided to try to recover damages from the county for both the money it spent to buy the property and engineer the rubblefill, in excess of $5 million, according to MRA founder and President Richard D. Schafer.
Schafer said the county’s actions made the property worthless, while also costing him and others who invested in the rubblefill millions in earnings. The suit sought $100 million in damages, claiming the county had in effect taken, or confiscated the property, without fairly compensating the owners.
Glassman took office as county executive in late 2014. The following year, the county retained G. Jefferson Blomquist to defend the suit. Blomquist worked in the county’s law department in the 1990s when the Gravel Hill controversy began.
Thus far, the County Council has authorized spending $500,000 to defend the suit. Billings are not complete, however, so the total spent is not yet available.
Although Mumby said the county has “resources” at its disposal, she did not specify what they are, nor did she respond directly to a question if the county carries liability insurance to indemnify it from court judgments.
Under Maryland law, the unpaid portion of a court judgment draws interest at 10 percent per annum, and would accrue during the appeal process, which could take months to years. If an appellate courts overturns the judgment in whole or part, the applicable interest would be deducted accordingly. Ten percent of $45.4 million is approximately $12,440 a day.
The county also will have to spend additional money on the appeal, mostly likely again hiring outside counsel, as it has historically done in complicated litigation.
Settling the case is also a possibility, as the county did in the mid-1970s, when it was sued by a developer for refusing to grant water and sewer connection permits and a judge ruled against the county.
Neither side was happy with the judge’s decision in the case, Art Builders Inc. vs. Harford County, and both filed appeals before they settled. The plaintiff agreed to waive the damages ($114,000) in exchange for a guarantee of 2,000 permits, according to the settlement on file in county records.
Schafer and another MRA investor, William D. Hooper Jr., said Wednesday that the county has consistently been unwilling to settle the case.