WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court declined to hear a plea Monday from developers who claim Baltimore County violated their constitutional rights by adopting a zoning law designed solely to halt their building plans.
The court, without comment, refused to consider the group’s assertions that they were singled out from other landowners and that local officials deprived them of their land’s economic value without advancing a “legitimate state interest.”
William and Loretta Hirshfeld and Greenspring Racquet Club Inc. challenged a county ordinance that limits the height and density of certain buildings near “rural conservation zones.” They claimed in court papers the county passed the ordinance only to stop them from building two office towers on a 5.5-acre lot in Lutherville that the Hirshfelds lease to Greenspring.
But county officials argued that the ordinance applied to scores of other sites, and they insist the claims by the Greenspring group are unfounded.
“We’re not saying that they can’t develop the site, we’re just saying they can’t develop it the way they want,” said Arnold Jablon, director of the county’s Department of Permits and Development Management, which was named in the suit.
“There’s no constitutional guarantee that you will make the most money out of your lot,” he said.
The case began in June 1998, when the Hirshfelds and Greenspring developed plans for five- and six-story towers to replace the club that had been on the property since 1976. They asked the county to exempt them from regulations governing public approval of the plan, which they deemed a “minor development.”
But the county’s Development Review Committee denied their request, and the would-be developers sued in state court.
In October 1998, the county council passed Bill 111-98, restricting the height of buildings near protected rural areas to 35 feet, among other limitations. It applies only to buildings in one of three zoning categories that are within 750 feet of a conservation zone.
The Greenspring group claimed the bill unfairly targeted them because lots in other categories — even those “permitting more intense uses” — were unaffected by the law, regardless of their distance from a protected zone. They said the law was “arbitrary and irrational,” passed in bad faith and “the result of conspiratorial collaboration between the county” and property owners opposed to the project.
But Baltimore County said the bill applied to 150 sites and that it was a legitimate attempt to control dense development in rural areas.
“We had maps prepared showing the application of this law throughout the county,” said County Council member T. Bryan McIntire, who introduced the bill. “There must have been 100 applications . . . so I don’t think they successfully claim that this singles them out.”
The Hirshfelds declined to comment on the case. But an attorney for owners of property adjacent to the Greenspring site challenged the county’s arguments.
Stuart D. Kaplow said the Hirshfelds’ property and that of his clients were the only two in the county substantially affected by the law, since all others had been developed to the extent allowed by the prior ordinance.
“Sure, there might have been a sliver of land here and a sliver of land there that could have been affected,” Kaplow said. “But they tweaked it . . . to see that the only properties burdened by the bill were these two properties.”
In 1999, the suit was moved to federal court, where it was dismissed. In October, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals largely agreed with the lower court , dismissing all of the group’s federal claims.
“When statements by local lawmakers set out legitimate reasons for imposing height and density restrictions on property in a particular class of zones, there can be no claim in federal court that the law fails to substantially advance a legitimate purpose,” the appeals court wrote.
The appeals court added that ruling otherwise would “open the federal courthouse to a veritable flood of local land-use litigation by putting every such allegation before a jury.”