ANNAPOLIS – A 6-year-old St. Mary’s County ordinance that would have legitimized up to 3,000 illegal subdivisions was ruled invalid Tuesday by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
The appeals court also overturned a lower court decision that would have required the county to pursue civil prosecutions of anyone involved with the illegal subdivisions.
“I’m pleased that the court rendered this decision,” said Oran R. Wilkerson, a vice president of the Potomac River Association, the environmental group that filed the original 1991 suit against the Board of County Commissioners and the county’s director of planning and zoning.
St. Mary’s County Attorney Douglas S. Durkin said he expected the court to overrule the order to prosecute individuals connected to the subdivisions. But, by killing the county ordinance, the court “offered no relief for the citizens” who may have unknowingly bought illegally subdivided land, he said.
The problems began in 1978 when the county adopted a state- required comprehensive plan outlining its future development. Included were amended regulations governing the division of parcels of land. Once a county adopts subdivision regulations, state law demands an approval process before any subdivision can go forward.
St. Mary’s landowners who wish to subdivide must submit a plat, or surveyed map of the property showing its relation to surrounding property, as well as road access, impact on schools, sewage and water, etc.
Jon R. Grimm, county director of planning and zoning, said that the subdivision process provides a “large measure of consumer protection” in that it ensures that “we don’t convey property not suitable for development – like swampland in Florida.”
Mary L. Jansson, a St. Mary’s landowner, joined the Potomac River Association in its suit because of the “long, cumbersome and expensive” subdivision process with which she complied.
Jansson alleged that she had paid higher taxes because citizens who should have paid fees and costs based on land subdivisions did not.
She also claimed the environment had been harmed by the illegal subdivisions.
“Laws regarding land also affect water; and groundwater should be protected as well, so we don’t have overbuilding that puts a big strain on resources,” Jansson said in an interview.
A 1991 Office of Planning memo to the Planning Commission estimated there had been as many as 3,000 subdivision violations between then and 1978.
Many people who bought that property and who then attempted to obtain county building permits were stymied in their efforts, because the county’s Planning Commission had never approved the original subdivisions.
In an attempt to “wipe the slate clean” for such landowners, the Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinance grandfathering these properties into compliance with the subdivision requirements without going through the actual approval process mandated by state statute.
The county “attempted to nullify state law,” Wilkerson said, “by passing a zoning amendment so they wouldn’t have to go back and correct illegalities.”
County attorney Durkin acknowledged that what county officials “set out to do was illegal.” But he argued that more than half the grandfathered land would have met legal exemptions to the subdivision process, if St. Mary’s County had “the standard and customary exemptions” most other Maryland counties have adopted.
Now that the county ordinance is voided, Durkin and Grimm are drafting exemptions for the Planning Commission that would allow certain subdivisions without the plat approval process.
Southern Maryland’s delegation to the General Assembly submitted a bill last week that would validate the illegal subdivisions. The proposal will be heard by the House Economic Matters Committee Feb. 18.
Del. John F. Wood Jr., D-St. Mary’s, sponsored a similar bill last year, which cleared the House but died in a Senate committee. “Why penalize these property owners for something that they had no control over?” Wood said. “What happened yesterday is gone and over with. Let’s move on.” -30-