Md. High Court: Local Governments Limited to Authority Granted By State

By Frank Johnson
Deputy City Attorney, City of Gaithersburg

The Maryland Constitution specifies that all local governments – including municipalities, charter counties, code counties, and commissioner counties – are subject to any limitations imposed by the State. Article 11-A, Section 3, specifies that state law prevails in any conflict with local law, and Section 6 further clarifies that counties and municipalities have no “powers in excess of those conferred” by the General Assembly.  Similarly, Article 11-E, Section 6, specifies that municipal charters, and local laws enacted under the charters are subject to any limitations imposed by the General Assembly. 

In a recent presentation to a meeting of municipal and county attorneys, Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Brynja Booth emphasized that, even when analyzing what may seem to be distinct local ordinances with no state impact, it is important to review limits and requirements imposed by Maryland law. She highlighted two recent rulings in which State limitations were the critical element in overturning local decisions. In both cases, she said, the limits of State authority had been largely overlooked in the initial briefing, and the Court of Appeals had specifically requested additional briefing on those issues.

The first case, Hovnanian Homes v. Mayor and City Council of Havre de Grace, 472 Md. 287 (2021), involved a municipality. Hovnanian Homes was the initial developer of an annexation and had installed infrastructure, including roads, to be used for all development parcels. However, it directly developed only one parcel. 

Hovnanian Homes expected to be reimbursed by other developers, but was not. It then reached a “Recoupment Agreement” with the Havre de Grace City Council that would, for each house sold in the other parcels, impose a fee to be paid to Hovnanian as reimbursement. 

Property owners protested, the mayor refused to sign the Agreement, and Hovnanian sued the City to enforce it, arguing the City Council had approved it.  While the Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals focused on the provisions of the City Charter, the Court of Appeals found the Agreement unenforceable for reasons other than the mayor’s refusal to sign: Pursuant to Article 11-E, Section 3, of the Constitution, a municipality may only take action as authorized by the State, and Sections 5-202 and 5-203 of the Md. Local Government Code only allows municipalities to impose such fees by ordinance – not by agreement with the developer.

The second case, Angel Enterprises v. Talbot County, 474 Md. 237 (2021), involved a county.  As explained by Judge Booth, a property owner had installed a driveway to a residence without seeking required county or state permits. Both the Maryland Department of Environment (“MDE”) and Talbot County issued orders and citations against the owner. 

The owner ultimately agreed on a reduced fine with MDE, but the County issued six assessment notices with civil penalties of $1,000 each day until correction, adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The citations were, by County ordinance, subject to appeal to the County Board of Appeals, which affirmed the fines but issued a stay pending further appeal to the Circuit Court, which authorized fines totaling more than $700,000. 

The Board of Appeals, Circuit Court, and on further appeal Court of Special Appeals all analyzed the specific terms of the Talbot County ordinance. The Court of Appeals, however, was the first to consider whether Talbot County, as a charter county, actually had the authority to impose the fines and subject the owner to appeal to the Board of Appeals. 

Article 11-A, Section 6, specifies that counties and municipalities have no authority beyond that granted by the General Assembly, and Section 10-206 of the Md. Local Government Code specifies that charter counties can only enact local laws that are not in conflict with State law. Here, the Court concluded, State law – specifically Title 6 of the Md. Local Government Code and Section 4-401 of the Md. Courts and Judicial Proceedings Code –provided that adjudication of fines from civil citations is part of the original and exclusive jurisdiction of the District Court, and cannot be made subject instead to a county agency or Board of Appeals for adjudication.

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