To approve or not approve? That is the question that underlies most all development applications. Unfortunately, it’s not a simple question. Localities and developers alike must both sift through dozens of regulations and rules that shape the ability to grant permission to utilize property. This area of the law is typically known as Land Use.
A Baltimore lawsuit reflects the fact that Land Use regulations cannot be read in isolation. The plaintiff, Hunt Valley Presbyterian Church, applied for permission to expand its campus. In approving the application, the County imposed development conditions including limitations on when the Church could use the premises for worship. The Church sued under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, alleging that the conditions burdened its right to exercise its religion, seeking equitable and monetary relief (as well as attorney’s fees).
Baltimore County recently agreed to settle the case for $500,000. While the reasoning behind both sides’ decision to end the litigation is not public, it is likely that the high risk of a significant verdict at trial was a consideration. As someone who frequently works on development applications, I know that imposing development conditions are a common and almost routine part of approval. In Baltimore’s case, it is possible that Baltimore may not have double checked that the conditions were consistent with federal law (such as the Constitution). (Note: there has been no such factual determination however the language of the conditions reflects this as a possibility
The settlement provides localities and developers/homeowners with helpful lessons. Specifically, the application for permission to develop one’s land must be reviewed from many perspectives. A failure to understand potential risks for the government or developer can result in denial and/or significant high dollar penalty. I recommend vetting even the most “simple” plan for development with counsel so that risk is minimized in the long term. Investing on the front end can help minimize the cost of extensive litigation (and therefore delay and related costs) and streamline the development process for all involved.
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Theodora Stringham assists individuals, businesses, and organizations with growing successfully while minimizing liability. Focusing on real estate and personnel needs, Ms. Stringham executes sustainable plans for real estate development and employee matters. She provides comprehensive representation for everyday growth issues, including, but not limited to, re-zonings, site plan approvals, eminent domain/valuation concerns, employment discrimination, and disciplinary issues. Ms. Stringham’s scope of representation ranges from identifying potential liability and providing counseling/trainings, all the way through representation at trial.
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