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Zoning Board’s Site Visit was a Violation of the Open Meeting Law

Bowie v. Charles County
No. 0312 (Md. February 3, 2012)

by Gregory L. Arbogast, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In Bowie v. Charles County, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned a zoning board’s decision because it violated MD. CODE ANN., STATE GOV’T § 10-503(b)(2), which is otherwise known as the open meeting law. The Court found that the open meeting law requires the zoning board to hold a meeting that is open to the public anytime that evidence, argument, or other matters are received by the board. In this case, the Charles County zoning board attended a site visit before granting a zoning variance, to which it excluded members of the general public. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals set aside the board’s decision because it violated the open meeting law.

Bowie arose out of a request for a zoning variance to construct a driving course, a shooting range, and an office building in Charles County. Ordinary zoning laws do not permit the construction for such a facility. Therefore, the petitioner sought approval from the zoning board. The board held a public hearing in which it took evidence and heard argument from both sides.

At the hearing, the board noted that it wished to conduct a site visit, but it did not wish to hold a second hearing with “100 members of the public” present. Therefore, the board scheduled a site visit, to which it invited the petitioner, the county attorney, and a representative from the public. It did not invite anyone else, and the visit was closed to all other members of the public.

Following the site visit, the board granted the petition zoning approval based on certain conditions, such as raising the berm around the facility. The public appealed on the basis that the board failed to comply with proper procedure when it attended the site visit and failed to permit the public to attend.

The Court of Special Appeals acknowledged that the open meetings law required the board invite the public to any meeting in which material evidence or argument was discussed. The Court also noted that the law does not recognize “partially open meetings” wherein the board restricts attendance to parties’ representatives. Therefore, the Court analyzed whether anything was discussed at the site visit upon which the board relied when arriving at its decision. The Court held that the site visit was devoid of any record, so it could not be determined whether the board relied on that visit. Therefore, the Court held that the board violated the open meetings law and set aside its decision.


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