Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 23, 2012

MD Court of Appeals Holds Zoning Board of Appeals Violated Open Meetings Law by Refusing to Allow Members of Public to Attend Site Visit

Following a site visit the zoning board granted WSG’s application for a special exception to build an office building, gun range, and driving track to conduct tactical research on a parcel of land in a rural part of the county zoned for agricultural conservation.  This followed three public hearings where there was substantial opposition to the project.  The Board Chair suggested the board, its counsel, representatives of WSG, and select members of the opposition visit the land in question to see “its proximity to everything else, topography and that sort of thing.”  The Chair said the meeting would not be open to the public but that a representative could attend. The visit took place and another member of the public, an adjacent property owner, attempted to participate but he was denied access. When challenged in court, the board argued that no one objected to the visit during the meeting when it was proposed, and that the outing was a site visit limited to observation alone and this removed it from coverage under the open meetings law. There was disagreement as to what actually transpired during the visit to the property and the board kept no transcript or other record of what transpired during the visit to the site.

The Court of Appeals of Maryland held that the Board of Appeals for Charles County (Board) violated the open meetings requirements of Article 66B of the Maryland Code, the Rules of Procedure of the Board, and the Charles County Code when it refused to allow members of the public, except a citizen “representatives,” to attend the in-person visit to the property with board members and representatives of WSG (the applicant). The court said that the visit was a meeting and, thus, subject to the open meeting requirements because the Board asked questions and received answers from the stakeholders during the site visit.  These violations rendered the Board’s decision, granting the special exception based, in part, on the site visit, void ab initio.

WSG Holdings, LLC v Bowie, 2012 WL 6604519 (Md. 12/19/2012).

The opinion can be accessed at: http://mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2012/22a12.pdf


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