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An Edward Sullivan Case Summary: Maryland Court Determines "Smart Growth" Limits

Naylor v. Prince George’s County, 27 A3d 597 (Md. App., 2011), involved the “Smart Growth Initiative” made part of defendant’s master plan adopted as part of the general plan by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (“Commission”) which set a limitation of less than 1% for the “Rural Tier” of Prince George’s County. Plaintiffs challenged a 19-lot subdivision on 95.5 acres approved by the County and adjacent to another subdivision by the same developer. The trial court affirmed defendant’s approval and plaintiffs appealed. There were three issues on appeal: standing (which the court declined to address, given its decision on the merits), conformity to the County and Commission plans, and substantial evidence to justify the findings.

The appellate court stated that it stood in the same position as the trial court and conducted a narrow and highly deferential inquiry, i.e., whether there was an erroneous conclusion or law or whether there was substantial evidence in the record for the decision. In previous related cases, Maryland courts determined that a subdivision in this area of the County must comply with both the County Master Plan as well as the Commission’s General Plan. In one previous case, the Maryland Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) determined that the 1% growth limit for rural areas applied in cases like this, but also said the local planning board had leeway in its decision making, especially given the horizon year of 2025 was far distant and the Board would not be required to deny all applications to achieve the desired equilibrium. Instead, the Board must either analyze any impasse of granting the application on long term growth objectives or explain why such analysis was not necessary. In any case, the Board cannot ignore the issue if raised.

The court denied a motion to dismiss made by defendants on the grounds that the same parties were involved in litigation on the adjacent parcel, noting that petitioner’s counsel in the previous case failed to raise the 1% issue and finding no res judicata under the circumstances. The court also denied petitioners’ contention that the Planning Board had no standing, noting Maryland case law that a court will not inquire on standing if one party (in this case, the developer) had standing.

The court then turned to the sufficiency of findings for the approval. In this case, the challenged resolution did address the 1% growth objective, finding no conflict between the grant and the 1% figure for the rural area in 2025 with an analysis the court found to be adequate, given the “hundreds” of units that could be allowed in that area during that period, even if the rate of approval, if continued over time, would ultimately violate that standard. The court also found substantial evidence in the record to support that finding. The fact that the planner had not calculated how many homes had been approved in the Rural Tier four years following the adoption of the policy was not fatal in that that number was clearly not in violation of the 1% standard in 2025. The County’s decision was thus affirmed.

This case discusses the consequences of using an “end state” figure for growth without having intervening benchmarks or limitations in its application.

Naylor v. Prince George’s County, 27 A3d 597 (Md. App., 2011).

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