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Historic Preservation Proceedings are Civil, Not Criminal

Spaw, LLC v. City of Annapolis, --- A.3d ---- (2017), 2017 WL 1131012 (March 27, 2017), discussed how since 1963 Maryland state law has permitted local governments to regulate the preservation of historically significant sites and structures within their jurisdictions.  See the Historic Area Zoning Act, Land Use Article, §8-101et seq.  Historic area zoning does not displace traditional zoning.  Instead, it creates overlay zones and further regulations for property owners within affected areas, in addition to the ordinary zoning laws.  An application to the appropriate commission must be filed before "constructing, reconstructing, altering, moving, or demolishing a site or structure located within a locally designated district if any exterior changes are involved that would affect the historic, archaeological, or architectural significance of the site or structure" and any of the changes are "visible or intended to be visible from a public way."

On December 13, 2012, the Annapolis Historic Preservation Commission (the "Commission") issued two historic preservation municipal infraction citations to Spaw, LLC, the owner of apartments at 2 Maryland Avenue in Annapolis, alleging that Spaw replaced historic wood windows with vinyl windows without a Certificate of Approval from the Commission.  The District Court of Maryland found in favor of the City of Annapolis (the "City"), and Spaw appealed the decision to the Circuit Court of Maryland for Anne Arundel County.  In answers to interrogatories, Spaw admitted to replacing nine or ten historic wood windows with vinyl windows without prior approval by the Commission, as required by law.  Based on this admission, the circuit court granted summary judgment to the City.  The Court of Appeals granted cert. and affirmed.

Spaw argued that historic preservation proceedings are criminal in nature, rather than civil, which would affect certain substantive rights as well as discovery issues.  However, the Court of Appeals held that based on State law and the Annapolis City Code, historical preservation municipal infraction proceedings are civil matters and are governed by the civil rules of procedure.  The Court further ruled that the citation that wooden windows had been replaced with vinyl ones at a particular address and the date that the violation was observed was sufficient without stating the number of affected windows or the date that the replacements occurred.

The Court held that neither of the two statutes of limitations that Spaw cited applied.  The City withdrew the possibility of a fine before the case was tried at the circuit court, leaving abatement of the infraction as the only remedy.  Therefore, (i) because abatement is not a penalty, the one-year statute of limitations does not apply; (ii) because the action of the City was in connection with the exercise of a governmental function, the three-year statute of limitations does not apply; and (iii) because the City did not tarry in issuing the citations after the violations were observed, the doctrine of laches did not apply.

For questions, please contact Ed Levin (410) 576-1900.


May 11, 2017




Levin, Edward J.


Real Estate