Sylvia Development Corp. v. Calvert County, Md.

Decision Date03 March 1995
Docket NumberNo. 94-1181,94-1181
Citation48 F.3d 810
PartiesSYLVIA DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION; Karel Dohnal, individually and as Agent for Sylvia Development Corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CALVERT COUNTY, MARYLAND; Michael J. Moore; Hagner R. Mister; Patrick M. Buehler; Mary M. Krug, all of the above are Board of County Commissioners of Calvert County in their official capacities; Joyce Lyons Terhes, in her official capacity as current and former Member of Board, and individually; William T. Bowen, individually and in his official capacity as former Member of Board of County Commissioners of Calvert County; Barbara A. Stinnett, individually and in her official capacity as former Member of Board of County Commissioners of Calvert County, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Tracy E. Mulligan, Jr., Rockville, MD, for appellants. Charles B. Keenan, Jr., Stark & Keenan, P.A., Bel Air, MD, for appellees.

Before MURNAGHAN, NIEMEYER, and MOTZ, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge NIEMEYER wrote the opinion, in which Judge MURNAGHAN and Judge MOTZ joined.


NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge:

The Calvert County (Maryland) Board of Commissioners, by a vote of three to two, denied Sylvia Development Corporation a special zoning designation to develop agricultural land in Calvert County into a subdivision of single-family homes. Although the County Board's decision was reversed by the Circuit Court for Calvert County and the special zoning rights were later approved (again by a three to two vote), Sylvia Development lost its economic opportunity because of the 11-month delay. Sylvia Development and its president and principal stockholder, Karel Dohnal, sued the County and the members of its Board of Commissioners, under 42 U.S.C. Secs. 1983 and 1985(3), alleging (1) that the Board arbitrarily denied Sylvia Development's application because Dohnal was born in Czechoslovakia, or because he and his company were out-of-county developers, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; (2) that the commissioners conspired to deny Dohnal and Sylvia Development their equal protection rights; and (3) that the Board's decision arbitrarily deprived Sylvia Development of a property interest in the special zoning designation in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants and, for the reasons that follow, we affirm.


In March 1989, Karel Dohnal, president, CEO, and principal stockholder of Sylvia Development Corporation, signed a conditional contract on behalf of Sylvia Development to purchase a 97.2 acre tract of rural land along Hance Road in Calvert County, Maryland. Dohnal intended to develop the tract into a subdivision of single-family homes called "Blue Dolphin Estates." The land contract was conditioned on Sylvia Development's obtaining the necessary zoning approvals to increase the property's allowable residential density from 22 lots to at least 38 lots.

Dohnal filed an application on behalf of Sylvia Development with Calvert County in May 1989 to designate the property as a Transfer Zone District ("TZD"), which would allow the increase in density necessary to build Blue Dolphin Estates. The County's TZD regulations are a component of its Agricultural Land Preservation Program. See Calvert County Code Sec. 12-101 et seq. A "transfer zone" is an area "designated by the county commissioners as an area where development rights may be used to increase the density of residential use." Sec. 12-101(i). In essence, the TZD regulations enable prospective developers to purchase unused "development rights" from participating agricultural landowners in exchange for the sellers' commitments to preserve their land as undeveloped and rural. Through the use of TZDs, the County seeks to preserve prime farm and forest land by relocating development without affecting the County's overall permitted residential density. See Calvert County Zoning Ordinance Sec. 4-3.01.

Ultimate authority for designating TZDs rests with the County Board of Commissioners ("the Board" or "the County Board"), although the Board must first seek the recommendation of the County Planning Commission. See Zoning Ordinance Sec. 4-3.02. Once the County Planning Commission reviews the application and makes a recommendation, the County Board must hold a duly-advertised public hearing and determine whether the proposed development complies with various land use ordinances and regulations and other criteria before approving the TZD designation. See Zoning Ordinance Secs. 4-3.02 & 3.03.

Sylvia Development's TZD application for Blue Dolphin Estates received a favorable recommendation from the County Planning Commission in June 1989, subject to Sylvia Development's meeting certain conditions during subdivision review. As part of its review of the Blue Dolphin Estates proposal, the Planning Commission staff analyzed the proposal's traffic and environmental impacts and concluded that the proposal met all six of the criteria required for TZD approval. The Planning Commission also solicited comments from several state agencies with regard to traffic engineering, environmental protection, school capacity, and the provision of public services. Upon receiving the favorable report of the Planning Commission, the County Board notified the public that a hearing on the application would be held on July 18, 1989.

At the July 18 hearing before the five-member County Board, numerous residents who lived in the vicinity of Hance Road testified in opposition to the Blue Dolphin project. Most of the residents commented on traffic and safety. One resident voiced her concern that "[t]here's so much traffic now that I can not pull out of my driveway safely," while another told of several fatalities that had already occurred on the narrow local roads. Other residents questioned whether the project would deplete fresh water reserves and warned that the development would harm wildlife. While the citizens who spoke at the hearing raised a number of different objections, one common theme ran throughout their testimony: a deep concern, expressed passionately by some, that the rural character of the area in which they had lived for years was being destroyed by residential developments like Blue Dolphin. As one resident put it:

I'm 58 years old, I won't be around here much longer, but I've got children and grandchildren that hope to live here. I've lived here all my life and I'm used to rural country. I know it's getting away from us.... Folks, I'm telling you, we've got to put a stop to it, and you're the folks up there that can do this.

Another resident, a community activist who was apparently one of the more vociferous commentors on July 18, summed up the anti-development mood in the audience:

You know, I'm proud to say that I live in the country and I'd like to continue to do so. What you're saying right now, is I can say I live in the country but it's behind a subdivision. I don't want to say that.

Dohnal was allowed to respond to the citizens' comments at the hearing. During his response, Dohnal criticized "the garbage and the lack of aesthetics of one of the inhabitants" of Hance Road. According to the deposition testimony of several persons present on July 18, the hearing became emotionally charged after Dohnal's disparaging comment. An African-American resident, who believed that Dohnal was associating her with the garbage-strewn property, interrupted Dohnal and later expressed that she was "incensed" at Dohnal's insinuation. When the resident sat down, the public testimony ended with the following exchange between Commissioner William T. Bowen and the community activist who spoke earlier:

Activist: I'd like to know where this developer comes from?

Bowen: I think that has no bearing on this hearing.

Activist: Well it's outside people coming in here and developing Calvert County.

Bowen: Any other comments? Is the Board prepared to act at this time?

After further discussion and debate among the five board members, the Board decided to deny Sylvia Development's TZD application by a vote of three to two. A simple majority was required for approval.

In their comments, made on the record, all three of the board members who voted against Blue Dolphin Estates cited the significant public opposition expressed at the hearing as a reason for their decision. The Board issued its official denial of Dohnal's application in a resolution dated August 22, 1989. The Board's resolution rested on three findings: (1) the Board concluded that, in light of the public testimony, the local roads were inadequate to accommodate increased residential density; (2) the Board was persuaded by an unidentified consultant's report "setting forth the general inadequacy of water availability for fire fighting"; and (3) the Board determined that issuing this TZD "would be contrary to the public interest of Calvert County at this time."

Sylvia Development and Dohnal timely appealed the Board's resolution to the Circuit Court for Calvert County. In May 1990, the Circuit Court reversed the Board's decision as unsupported by probative evidence. The court's opinion explained that under Maryland law the Board, sitting as an adjudicative body in a TZD application hearing, was required to render a final decision with findings of fact based upon substantial evidence in the record. In the case of Blue Dolphin Estates the court found that the only support in the record for the Board's finding of inadequate road access consisted of the "unsubstantiated, generalized concerns" of local residents. Such lay testimony, without more, could not be considered probative in the face of contrary expert evidence produced by engineers from the County Planning Commission and several state agencies. The court also summarily rejected the...

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