David beat Goliath. It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally the little guy wins.
A grassroots citizens group has succeeded in killing a proposed 1,200-unit housing and retail development near Urbana after a struggle that lasted most of the past decade.
The Maryland Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, has ruled that the developers, Payne Investments and 75-80 Properties, could not proceed.
The history of the development is a microcosm of the arguments over growth in Frederick County. The proposal was approved in the waning days of the old Board of Commissioners, before the county charter was adopted and the executive/council form of government was created.
The last board of commissioners was rabidly pro-growth, and it approved a plethora of huge projects, including the Lake Linganore/Oakdale High School housing developments near New Market and the Jefferson Tech Park southwest of the city of Frederick.
The Monrovia rezoning was tripped up in large part because of a violation of the county’s Ethics Code.
Residents Advocating for Land Use and the Environment (RALE) was the citizen-led organization that championed the fight against the MTC. The Frederick Area Committee for Transportation (FACT) was backing the developers and urging the county to approve the town center.
Former county commissioner Paul Smith violated the county’s ethics code that prohibits so-called ex parte communication, secretly meeting with the FACT group and helping to write a letter to the Board of Commissioners on which he was serving in favor of the project.
The Frederick County Circuit Court and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals both held that Smith’s actions violated the law and permitted the new County Council to reconsider the zoning, and the council then killed project. The Court of Appeals upheld the lower courts.
The high court also noted that once the Circuit Court determined that the ethics statute had been violated, and sent the case back to the council, the court was correct to vacate the developer’s approvals given by the Board of Commissioners. That decision came after the developer refused to participate in the hearing to reconsider the project.
The court also rejected the developers’ argument that ambiguity in the county’s ethics code should have allowed them to keep the approvals, because of the expenses they had already put into the property.
Matt Seubert, the president of RALE, said the community’s support in the long legal battle was key.
“The community came together and basically funded the legal fees,” he told our reporter. “These things aren’t cheap, and we had a talented lawyer, and it takes a lot of money to challenge these things.”
Money is usually the reason community groups lose these battles over growth. Community groups rarely can sustain the fight and keep paying the lawyers because the developers have the deeper pockets.
The land for the town center is at the intersection of Green Valley Road (Route 75) and Fingerboard Road (Route 85). It was the site of the old 75/80 drag racing strip, now abandoned and overgrown with trees and shrubs.
It is highly unlikely the land will never be developed, but the owners will have to start over from the beginning, with a new development plan going before the county Planning Commission and County Council.
But it is beyond unlikely that the current council would even consider a project that would include 1,200 homes and retail businesses. That kind of crowding just will not be allowed to happen, and that is the correct attitude.
The county is still struggling to cope with the cost of schools, transportation and other infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate the massive developments approved in the bad old days under the old board of commissioners.
Congratulations to the people of Monrovia and the RALE group for taking on the giant — and winning.