County Council of Prince George's County v. E. L. Gardner, Inc.

Decision Date02 April 1982
Docket NumberNo. 11,11
Citation293 Md. 259,443 A.2d 114
PartiesCOUNTY COUNCIL OF PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY, Maryland v. E. L. GARDNER, INC.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Steven M. Gilbert, Associate County Atty., Upper Marlboro (Robert B. Ostrom, County Atty. and Michael O. Connaughton, Deputy County Atty., on the brief), for appellant.

Paul B. Rodbell, Riverdale (William V. Meyers and Meyers & Billingsley, P. A., Riverdale, on the brief), for appellee.

Argued before MURPHY, C. J., and SMITH, DIGGES, * ELDRIDGE, COLE, DAVIDSON and RODOWSKY, JJ.

DAVIDSON, Judge.

This case presents a question concerning nonconforming uses. More particularly, it involves the question whether, under the applicable provisions of the Prince George's County Code (1979), Subtitle 27.Zoning, the owner of a nonconforming surface mining sand and gravel operation can obtain a special exception to operate a sand and gravel wet-processing facility at the same location. The relevant provisions of the Prince George's County Code are as follows.

Section 27-101 provides in pertinent part:

"(a) Terms used in this Subtitle are defined as follows:

"(110.1) Nonconforming Building or Structure: Any building or structure not in conformity with a regulation of the zone in which it is situated, which regulation was adopted subsequent to the lawful erection of such building or structure....

"(111) Nonconforming Use: Use of any building, structure, or land, or portion thereof, not in conformity with a regulation of the zone in which it is situated, including any regulation of Division 36 (Special Exceptions) applicable to said use, which regulation was adopted subsequent to the lawful establishment of such use.... The term 'nonconforming use' shall be deemed to include any building, structure, or other facility utilized in connection with a nonconforming use....

"(152) Use: The principal purpose for which a lot, and/or the main building thereon, is designed, arranged, or intended and for which it may be used, occupied, or maintained."

Section 27-107(a) provides:

"(a) Any nonconforming building, structure, or use, as defined in Section 27-101, may be continued repaired, or maintained without enlargement or extension, unless otherwise provided by this Subtitle." (Emphasis added.)

Section 27-107(e) provides in pertinent part:

"(e) No nonconforming use may be changed to any use other than that provided by ... permits under which the nonconforming use operated at the time the nonconforming use was established." (Emphasis added.)

Section 27-108(a) provides in pertinent part:

"(a) A nonconforming building, structure, or use may only be enlarged or extended if such enlargement or extension shall conform to the provisions of this Subtitle for the zone in which it is located and a special exception has been approved by the District Council, as provided in Division 36 (Special Exceptions) of this Subtitle." (Emphasis added.)

Section 27-482(a) provides in pertinent part:

"(a) Any nonconforming building, structure, or use as defined in Section 27-101, may be continued, subject to the regulations of Section 27-107, and may be structurally expanded or extended, subject to the provisions of Division 36 (Special Exceptions) of this Subtitle." (Emphasis added.)

Section 27-553 provides in pertinent part:

"(a) Any nonconforming building, structure, or use, as defined in Section 27-101 herein ... may be enlarged, extended, or demolished and reconstructed, if the applicant can show generally that such enlargement, extension, or reconstruction will not adversely affect the use of adjacent properties and the neighborhood, subject to the following requirements and conditions:

"(1) A nonconforming building or structure, or a building or structure utilized in connection with a nonconforming use, may be enlarged in height or bulk....

"(2) A nonconforming use may be extended throughout a part or whole of a building in which such nonconforming use lawfully exists, or to the bounding lot lines of the lot....

"(3) A nonconforming use may be reconstructed within the bounding lot lines of the lot....

"(4) Any addition to an existing building or structure, or any new building or structure, constructed in connection with a nonconforming use shall, at a minimum, conform to the requirements relative to building lines, setbacks, yards, and height limits in the zone in which such nonconforming use is situated...." (Emphasis added.)

The respondent, E. L. Gardner, Inc. (owner), owns approximately 450 acres of land (subject property) located in Prince George's County. The subject property was originally zoned R-R (rural-residential, 15,000 square foot minimum lot size) by the comprehensive zoning map adopted 2 December 1966. It was reclassified to the O-S zone (open space, single-family residential, 5 acre minimum lot size) by the comprehensive zoning map adopted 12 July 1977. Neither a sand, gravel or clay pit, nor a wet-processing facility is a permitted use in the O-S zone. Both, however, are special exception uses in that zone. § 27-537(a)(1) and § 27-538.1(a). 1 Before the subject property was zoned, it was used for the mining of sand and gravel. This use has been established as a legal nonconforming use by the issuance of a use and occupancy permit. § 27-108(b). 2 In 1977, an application was filed, pursuant to § 27-538.1, for a special exception for the wet processing of sand and gravel.

The technical staff of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Prince George's County Planning Board recommended approval, with conditions, as did the Zoning Hearing Examiner. Thereafter, the County Council sitting as the District Council for Prince George's County (Council) rejected those recommendations and entered an order denying the requested special exception. In its written findings and conclusions, the Council, among other things, said:

"5. Council further concludes that to grant this special exception would be an unwarranted extension and expansion of a nonconforming use, contrary to the provisions of COUNTY CODE Sect. 27-107. This proposed sand and gravel processing facility would obviously encourage the further continuation of sand and gravel extraction operations, contrary to the purposes of the County's Zoning Ordinance, which has the object of discouraging nonconforming uses."

The owner appealed to the Circuit Court for Prince George's County which reversed the action of the Council. In its opinion the trial court said:

"Penultimately, the District Council concluded that to grant Gardner's special exception would be an 'unwarranted extension and expansion' of the Petitioner's nonconforming use, and would be contrary to § 27-107 of the County Code.

"The Court notes that enlargement or extension of a nonconforming use is contemplated by the Code, and that the criteria for a 'permitted' enlargement or extension are set forth in § 27-553 of the Code. However, the Court finds that the requested special exception is not an extension or enlargement as contemplated by the Code, see § 27-533, but rather an intensification of Gardner's ongoing nonconforming use."

The Council appealed to the Court of Special Appeals which affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Prince George's County v. E. L. Gardner, Inc., 47 Md.App. 471, 424 A.2d 392 (1981). In its opinion, that Court said:

"If the controversy here considered involved only the question whether the contemplated use of the land owned by the appellee amounted to an illegal enlargement or expansion of its non-conforming use of the premises, it would not present a difficult question to be decided. The problem in this case, however, is that the proposed use of the appellee's property does not depend on the non-conforming use, but rather on the right to a special exception established by the Prince George's County Zoning Ordinance.

"Under the circumstances revealed by the record, we agree with the appellee that the non-conforming use status of the appellee's property is irrelevant in the determination of this controversy.

"The sole question to be answered in this appeal then is whether (the trial court) erred in concluding that based on the evidence before the District Council the record did not raise an issue before the administrative body which was 'fairly debatable.'

"Our examination of the record convinces us that the applicant more than met its burden of producing probative and credible evidence on all the issues required to be proven, and that the evidence of the protestants was so vague and indefinite as to fail to raise fair debate in a reasoning mind. Therefore, we find that the action of the District Council, in refusing to grant the special exception was arbitrary, capricious, and illegal." E. L. Gardner, Inc., 47 Md.App. at 477-78, 480, 424 A.2d at 395-97.

The Council filed a petition for a writ of certiorari that we granted. We shall reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

One of the basic tenets of zoning is that some uses of land are incompatible with others, and that more efficient employment of land resources is achieved if such incompatible uses are separated. An admixture of incompatible land uses is avoided by dividing the community into use districts, each restricted to industrial, commercial or residential occupation.

As a practical matter, however, homogeneous land use has not been achieved. Major movement of population from rural to urban areas had begun half a century before the first comprehensive zoning ordinance was enacted in the United States. As a result, land to be zoned was not always vacant. Indeed, frequently it was occupied by landowners who had developed their land unfettered by any significant degree of governmental control. Thus, use districts, designed to be homogeneous, unavoidably include land devoted to uses proscribed by the zoning regulations. Such nonconforming uses pose a formidable threat to the success of zoning. They limit...

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    ...problems of zoning is the inability to eliminate incompatible nonconforming land uses." County Council of Prince George's County v. E.L. Gardner, Inc., 293 Md. 259, 267, 443 A.2d 114 (1982). Specifically, the Court of Appeals in E.L. Gardner, supra, at 267, 443 A.2d 114, said: "[s]uch nonco......
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