Citizens Planning and Housing Ass'n v. County Executive of Baltimore County

Citation273 Md. 333,329 A.2d 681
Decision Date18 December 1974
Docket NumberNo. 55,55
PartiesCITIZENS PLANNING AND HOUSING ASSOCIATION et al. v. COUNTY EXECUTIVE OF BALTIMORE COUNTY et al.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland

.Stanley Sollins and Cleaveland D. Miller, Baltimore, for appellants.

Thomas J. Aversa, Jr., Asst. County Sol. (R. Bruce Alderman, County Sol., and Harry S. Shapiro, Asst. County Sol., Towson, on the brief), for appellees.

Argued before MURPHY, C. J., and SINGLEY, SMITH, DIGGES, LEVINE, ELDRIDGE and O'DONNELL, JJ.

Stanley Sollins and Cleaveland D. Miller,

This appeal arises out of an equity suit, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief, filed by appellants: a metropolitan-area civic organization, a group of neighborhood and area civic improvement associations, and several individuals alleging they are 'residents, citizens, taxpayers and property owners of Baltimore County.' The individuals have sued 'on their own behalf and on behalf of all other residents, citizens, taxpayers and property owners of Baltimore County who are similarly situated and on behalf of similarly situated nonindividual Plaintiffs, as a class action and as a representative thereof of all their claims, in accordance with, and as provided in Rule 209 of the Maryland Rules of Procedure.' In question here is the standing of these parties to maintain this action.

After defendants-appellees, the County Executive and the County Administrative Officer of Baltimore County, demurred to the original bill of complaint, appellants obtained leave to amend. In their amended bill of complaint, they allege that appellees initiated a 'reorganization' of the 'Office of Planning and Zoning' in violation of Article V, Section 524 of the Baltimore County Charter, which confers upon the county council the exclusive power to reorganize the Office of Planning and Zoning by legislative action. 1 Appellants allege that this action was, therefore, ultra vires, illegal and unconstitutional.

To establish the necessary standing for bringing this action, appellants allege that they have suffered special damages:

'(a) As taxpayers of Baltimore County because said acts by the Defendants will make the Office less efficient to carrying out its functions and responsibilities, and this will result in an impairment of the property tax base of the County, therefore causing a prospective pecuniary loss incident to the increase in the amount of taxes the Plaintiffs and other such taxpayers will be constrained to pay.

'(b) As real property owners within Baltimore County, in that a charter created mechanism to assure proper planning and zoning practices and processes within the County has been made less efficient and more costly and their property itself stands to depreciate in value as a result.'

They conclude by alleging that unless granted appropriate injunctive and declaratory relief, they and all other 'citizens, taxpayers and property owners in Baltimore County will suffer irreparable loss, harm and damage.'

The amended bill of complaint prompted the filing of a second demurrer by appellees in which they again challenged appellants' standing to maintain their action. This position was upheld by the circuit court which, in sustained the demurrer, 2 ruled that appellants had 'failed to allege any facts showing that the alleged actions of the Defendants would result in increased taxes of pecuniary loss to them.' The court regarded the allegations of the amended bill of complaint as 'mere conclusions,' based on conjecture and speculation, which were 'without any supporting factual foundation.'

On appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, the circuit court decision was affirmed in Citizens P. & H. Ass'n v. County Exec., 20 Md.App. 430, 316 A.2d 263 (1974). Relying on Kerpelman v. Bd. of Public Works, 261 Md. 436, 276 A.2d 56 (1971), cert. denied, 404 U.S. 858, 92 S.Ct. 109, 30 L.Ed.2d 100 (1971) and Stovall v. Secretary of State, 252 Md. 258, 250 A.2d 107 (1969), as did the circuit court, the Court of Special Appeals held that the allegations in the bill of complaint were conclusory, and that '. . . appellants (had) failed to allege facts showing a potential financial loss or increase in taxes from the alleged illegal actions of the County Executive, . . ..' 20 Md.App. at 436, 316 A.2d at 267 (emphasis added). We granted certiorari to consider this important question of standing.

In this Court, appellants renew their contention that the allegations of anticipated pecuniary loss and higher taxes in the amended bill of complaint meet the test of sufficiency applicable in the face of a demurrer. They claim that the cases merely require them to allege a potential pecuniary loss, and that they have satisfied this requirement. Furthermore, they contend that since the actions of the County Executive are illegal and ultra vires, the expenditure of monies for salaries subsequent to the reorganization is also illegal, even if the latter results in a net reduction in salary payments, because all the positions in the reorganized Office of Planning and Zoning partake of that illegality. To that extent, they urge, the taxes which fund those illegal salaries represent an increase sufficient to confer standing. Appellants conclude by urging that taxpayer litigation is the only meaningful remedy for dealing with governmental abuse such as they have alleged here; and that the ballot box, to which they have been relegated by the Court of Special Appeals, does not afford adequate relief for this purpose.

Apart from maintaining against the individual appellants the same position which they have successfully advocated twice below, appellees also contend that the organizational appellants lack standing to sue. They argue that those groups have failed, as required by our prior decisions, to allege facts showing an interest in the subject matter that is of a wholly distinct character from that of their individual members.

In considering the propriety of the circuit court decision, we are mindful that in ruling on a demurrer to a bill of complaint, the chancellor must assume as true, for that purpose, all of the well-pleaded facts in the bill of complaint and attached exhibits, as well as the inferences which may be reasonably drawn from those well-pleaded facts, Thomas v. Howard County, 261 Md. 422, 430, 276 A.2d 49 (1971); Hall v. Barlow Corporation, 255 Md. 28, 42, 255 A.2d 873 (1969); Parish v. Milk Producers Assn., 250 Md. 24, 71, 242 A.2d 512, 538 (1968).

(1)

This Court has had occasion to consider the question presented here-taxpayer standing-on a number of occasions, beginning with Baltimore v. Gill, 31 Md. 375 (1869). There, the City of Baltimore wished to raise money to assist the Western Maryland Railroad in the completion of its Williamsport line. The City planned to accomplish this by borrowing one million dollars and pleading as security certain stock which it owned in the railroad. In holding this to be violative of the Maryland Constitution, our predecessors said:

'It is certainly well settled that public wrongs cannot be redressed at the suit of individuals, who have no other interest in the matter than the rest of the public. . . . But it appears from the averments of the bill, that these complainants, as taxpayers of the city, and others similarly situated, in whose behalf as well as their own the bill is filed, constitute a class specially damaged by the alleged unlawful act of the corporation, in the alleged increase of the burden of taxation upon their property situated within the city. The complainants have therefore a special interest in the subject-matter of the suit, distinct from that of the general public.

'In this State the courts have always maintained with jealous vigilance the restraints and limitations imposed by law upon the exercise of power by municipal and other corporation; and have not hesitated to exercise their rightful jurisdiction for the purpose of restraining them within the limits of their lawful authority, and of protecting the citizen from the consequence of their unauthorized of illegal acts.' 31 Md. at 394-395.

From this decision and the long line of Maryland cases following in its wake, the principle has become established that a taxpayer may invoke the aid of a court of equity to restrain the action of a public official or an administrative agency when such action is illegal or ultra vires, and may injuriously affect the taxpayer's rights and property. Reed v. McKeldin, 207 Md. 553, 558, 115 A.2d 281 (1955); Masson v. Reindollar, 193 Md. 683, 688, 69 A.2d 482 (1949); Liquor Stores Assn. v. Commrs., 171 Md. 426, 429, 189 A. 209, 109 A.L.R. 1253 (1937). The corollary to this rule is that the taxpayer will be allowed such relief only when some special damage is alleged and proved, or a special interest is shown which is distinct from that of the general public. Citizens Committee v. Co. Comm., 233 Md. 398, 401, 197 A.2d 108 (1964). This has been interpreted to require a showing that the action being challenged results in a pecuniary loss or an increase in taxes. Stovall v. Secretary of State, supra, 252 Md. at 263, 250 A.2d 107; Murray, Etc. v. Comptroller, 241 Md. 383, 391, 216 A.2d 897 (1966), cert. denied, 385 U.S. 816, 87 S.Ct. 36, 17 L.Ed.2d 55 (1966). From among the profusion of cases decided by this Court on the question of standing, several emerge as worthy of particular comment here.

In Sun Cab Co. v. Cloud, 162 Md. 419, 159 A. 922 (1932), suit was brought in equity to enjoin a referendum aimed at nullifying the Act of the General Assembly which subjected taxicab operators to regulation by the Public Service Commission. The suit claimed that the referendum petition contained a number of invalid signatures. Thus, it was alleged that '. . . if the referendum should proceed upon the (invalid) petitions . . ., the taxpayers will be put to wrongful expense for the publication of the referendum and the printing of it on the ballots of the next...

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