Baltimore County owns a 2.63-acre parcel in Oregon Ridge Park, which the County leased to Oregon to use for the restaurant it operated in the historic building located on the property. The County functions not only as Oregon’s landlord for the property, but also as its land use regulator. The parties entered into the original lease in 1985, which essentially stated that Oregon agreed to comply with all necessary laws, that the County had the right to exercise full governmental control, and that the County could cancel the lease if Oregon were to violate any of its terms or conditions. In 1994, the County, in its capacity as owner of the property, filed three petitions with the Zoning Commissioner with regard to Oregon’s use of the property. The petitioners were for (1) a special hearing to determine if the County was exempt from zoning regulations, (2) a special exception to convert the existing historic building to a restaurant, and (3) a variance allowing for fewer parking lot spaces than required for a restaurant of that size under the zoning regulations. The Zoning Commissioner granted the second and third petitions, but the use of the property was subject to several conditions.
The relevant conditions to the litigation were that Oregon was “prohibited from hosting parties, weddings, and other outdoor events,” and while Oregon was permitted to utilize outdoor seating it was only permitted to use that outdoor seating for sit-down dining. Also, Oregon was not permitted to have any tents or canopies on the property, but table umbrellas were permitted. Later, Oregon requested that its petition for a variance allowing for fewer parking spaces be dismissed because it wished to expand the lot. The Zoning Commissioner granted the request but the parking lot was to “be of crushed stone or other permeable surface” in order to match the preexisting surface. Eventually, these terms were merged into a restrictive covenant entered into between planning council and Oregon. In 1994, the County and Oregon executed a supplemental lease extending the 1985 lease, but also amending it to include the restrictive covenant.
Although, Oregon agreed to not pave the parking lot, the parking lot was in-fact paved in early 2006, but it was undetermined who directed the parking lot to be paved. In 2008, the Falls Road Community Association filed in Circuit Court for Baltimore County against both Oregon and the County. “The first three counts of the complaint asked the court to issue writs of mandamus ordering the County to enforce limitations on the paved surface area of the parking lot, the number and location of parking spaces, and the use of the Property for outdoor events.” The final count of the complaint was brought under the Maryland Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (Act), which in relevant part, requested injunctive relief. The Circuit Court found that the claims requesting mandamus were not available because the duties were discretionary, and therefore mandamus relief was not an option. The court also found that the objects on the patio constituted very large umbrellas, and therefore, did not violate the agreement. With regard to the parking lot, the court found that the “paving of the entire parking lot did not violate the impervious surface limitation in the zoning regulations,” but that paving the lot and adding spaces violated the Board of Appeals orders. However, the court did not grant declaratory relief because “a declaratory judgment would not terminate the uncertainty or controversy giving rise to the action.” Additionally, the circuit court found that there was no basis for ordering Oregon to tear up the parking lot, and that it did not have authority to grant an injunction under the Act.
On appeal, the issues were (1) whether the Community Association was required to pursue administrative relief prior to its action in court, (2) whether the circuit correctly denied mandamus relief, and (3) whether the circuit court did or did not have authority to issue a declaratory judgment under the particular circumstances. With regard to the issue of administrative relief, the court found that because “the courts did not interfere with an efficient administrative process on a matter within the expertise of the agency,” that the Community Association was not required to pursue further administrative relief prior to litigation. The court supported this determination stating that in some cases an owner or tenant of property would remain trapped in a cycle of administrative proceedings, and never have the opportunity for judicial review.
Next, the court addressed the issue of mandamus relief, where it began by stating, “common law mandamus is an extraordinary remedy that is generally used to compel inferior tribunals, public officials or administrative agencies to perform their function . . . [and] [t]he writ ordinarily does not lie where the action to be reviewed is discretionary or depends on personal judgment.” The court found that the County was clearly within its discretion in choosing not to enforce every violation because choosing to prosecute an enforcement “involves the consideration of potential outcomes, the odds of success, the cost to the taxpayers,” and the benefit to the community. These choices are thus inherently discretionary.
Lastly, the court addressed whether the circuit court had the authority to grant declaratory relief under the Act. The court found that the circuit court did in-fact have the authority to grant declaratory relief under the Act, but that the particular relief requested in the complaint, an injunction, may not have been the most appropriate.
Falls Road Community Ass’n, Inc., v. Baltimore County, 2014 WL 712665 (M.D. 2/25/2014)
The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2014/39a12.pdf