Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 18, 2019

MD Court of Appeals Finds Substantial Evidence Supported Council’s Decision to Deny Application to Amend General Development Plan

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

This case arose from the denial of an application to amend the General Development Plan for Wakefield Valley. In 2016, the developer WV DIA Westminster, LLC filed an application to amend the Wakefield Valley GDP to permit construction of fifty-three homes on what was designated as “Parcel W” of a former golf course. In December 2016, the Mayor and Common Council of Westminster, held a public hearing on the application. In January 2017, the Council held another public hearing in which it voted to deny the application, and the president of the Council directed the staff to prepare a written decision to that effect. In February 2017, the developer filed a petition for judicial review in the Circuit Court for Carroll County. In March 2017, the Council adopted Ordinance No. 876, denying the application. and the circuit court issued an order affirming the Council’s decision. The developer then filed an appeal in the Court of Special Appeals, as well as a petition for a writ of certiorai.
On appeal, the developer argued the Council’s decision denying the Application was a quasi-judicial decision, rather than a legislative act.  Furthermore, by casting its decision as an exercise of legislative judgment, the Council applied an erroneous standard and legally erred. As such, the developer claimed, the Council could not ask the court to affirm its decision on the basis that the decision was a quasi-judicial decision supported by substantial evidence. Here, contrary to the Council’s contention, the court found the application only sought to amend the Wakefield Valley GDP with respect to Parcel W. Thus, the Council reached its decision based on an examination of Parcel W on individual grounds, and was more akin to piecemeal rezoning than comprehensive rezoning. Additionally, the court found that the Council’s consideration of the Application included all of the hallmarks of a deliberative fact-finding process: the holding of an evidentiary hearing and the receipt of factual and opinion testimony, as well as documentary evidence.

 

The court next determined that, in considering the Application, the Council used a deliberative and testimonial fact-finding process. Here, the specific findings required by Westminster Code § 164-188J included whether the application substantially complied with the use and density indicated by the Master Plan or sector plan and did not conflict with other specified plans and policies. The Council was further tasked with determining whether the proposed vehicular and pedestrian circulation systems were adequate and efficient, and whether the proposed development tended to prevent erosion of the soil and to preserve natural vegetation and other natural features of the site. The court found that these findings were those that a governmental body must make during a quasi-judicial decision-making process involving proposed development on a particular property. As the court found this to be a quasi-judicial decision, it was subject to judicial review to determine whether substantial evidence in the record as a whole supported the Council’s findings and conclusions and to determine whether the Council’s decision was premised upon an error of law.
The developer argued that, under the Council’s factual findings, the Application satisfied Westminster Code § 164-188J. The record reflected, however, that the Council found the Application to have failed to substantially comply with the use and density indicated by the Wakefield Valley GDP, and that it conflicted with the general plan or other applicable City plans and policies. Moreover, if the Application were to be approved, the open space would drop to 40% after the developer build the proposed single family homes, which was contrary to the intent for the area as demonstrated through the amendments to the Wakefield Valley GDP. Accordingly, the court affirmed the circuit court’s judgement, and held that there was substantial evidence in the record as a whole to support the Council’s findings and conclusions, and that the Council’s decision was not premised upon an error of law.

WV DIA Westminster, LLC v. Mayor & Common Council of Westminister, 2019 WL 257972 (MD App. 1/18/2019)


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