Frizz-King Enterprises, LLC purchased 275 acres in an agricultural zoning district in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland and initiated the process to build a subdivision called “The Highlands.” Although Frizz-King was able to obtain an adequate public facilities study pursuant to the County’s ordinance to determine the subdivision’s impact on water, sewer, traffic and schools, Grasslands Plantation, Inc, the owner of the adjacent property, continued to oppose the subdivision in a series of hearings before the Board of Appeals and Planning Commission. Grasslands argued that the proposed subdivision was incompatible with Maryland Code provisions, the Queen Anne’s County Comprehensive Plan and provisions of the Queen Anne’s County Code. The Commission approved the proposed subdivision and in doing so, ignoring the insistence of both parties, failed to make any findings of fact.
Shortly before oral argument on appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, the County enacted two ordinances, the “Conformity Act” and the “Emergency Service Ordinance,” both of which imposed on the Commission a stricter standard of compliance with the County’s Comprehensive Plan when approving a subdivision. The court affirmed the decision without consideration of the intervening legislation. Grasslands appealed the determination, arguing that the board improperly placed the burden of proof on it as the appellant and that the newly enacted provisions should have been applied in the proceedings.
The Court of Appeals first determined that the Board’s de novo proceedings were an “entirely new hearing at which time all aspects of the case should be heard anew, as if no decision has been previously rendered.” The court went on to hold that in light of the purely de novo nature of the proceedings, the burden of proof should have remained on Frizz-King to establish that its proposed subdivision satisfied the requirements of the Queen Anne’s County Code.
On the issue of the newly enacted legislation, the court determined that the ordinances should have been retrospectively applied to the development’s approval determination. The Court held that since the Emergency Service Ordinance was substantive law it should be applied at the new hearing because it is the law in effect at the time of the hearing and does not impair vested rights. In addition, it held that the Conformity Act, an arguable procedural law change, shall also apply, notwithstanding contrary caselaw, as the Commission’s or Board’s process of making its decision will “begin anew” for an independent reason, namely, the burden of proof. The court reasoned that the proper analysis for determining the retroactive application of a procedural law change turns on “what aspect of the administrative/adjudication process is changed, at what point in the administrative/adjudication process the change is made, and the question presented to the reviewing court.” The court remanded the case and directed the Board or Commission to apply the ordinances to the determination.
Grasslands Plantation, Inc. v. Frizz-King Enterprises, LLC, 2009 WL 2591262 (Md.8/25/2009)
The opinion can be accessed at: http://mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2009/117a08.pdf