December 19, 2011

Forest Conservation

Gorman Park, September 2011
Recently, there have been a few articles in the local press discussing forest sustainability. The Baltimore Sun wrote about complaints from forest advocates regarding development around Patapsco Valley State Park on both December 6 and December 7. After reading these articles, and driving by the Christmas tree lot set up at our local high school, I decided to look into forest conservation in Howard County.

In 1991, Maryland passed the Maryland Forest Conservation Act, which was followed by the Howard County Forest Conservation Act in 1993. These acts require developers to:  
address forest resources during the planning and review phases of land development. Any project proposing to clear or grade more than 20,000 square feet of forested land must provide a specified acreage of forest retention, reforestation, and/or afforestation relative to the proposed extent of forest clearing or grading.
The developer enters into a Forest Conservation Agreement, which is an easement, with Howard County. The developer must provide a Plat of Forest Conservation Easement (Plat), a Forest Conservation Plan (FCP), and a Deed of Forest Conservation Easement (Deed) before the County approves a final development plan. The Forest Conservation Plan details what actions the developer must take for the property in question . This includes whether the developer is engaging in forest retention or if he is to plant new trees within specific easements, including what species and sizes of trees are to be planted, and what protections are to be provided to the easements before, during, and after development.

In the event that there is no opportunity for forest conservation, the developer must pay a fee assessed per square foot of property to be developed.

The Department of Recreation and Parks (DRP) was granted the power to inspect forest easements by the Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) in 2001.
Now Agreements permit DRP staff to access easement areas to complete forest conservation inspections and to investigate possible violations of the Howard County FCA.  DRP staff members are directed by County planners within DPZ when to inspect specific forest conservation projects.  The costs of inspections are funded through fees paid by developers to the County.  Investigations of possible FCA violations are initiated by reports from concerned citizens, through the use of aerial photography or Geographical Information System (GIS) maps, and as a result of County personnel discovering a possible violation during the completion of their day-to-day activities.
Howard County requires a two-year survival and maintenance period for all forest conservation projects. Developers are required to post a bond throughout this period to guarantee compliance. A forest conservation project must pass an initial inspection before the two-year survival and maintenance period commences.  The inspection determines whether easement boundaries are correct, if planting and forest retention match the FCP, that protective signs are in place, that any violations are mitigated, that invasive species are being managed, and that the public is being educated.  A plot survey of reforestation and afforestation areas is completed to determine FCP compliance and tree survival.  A survival rate of 90% or better is required to initiate the two-year survival and maintenance period. A survival rate of 75% or better is required after two yearsInspections may continue until the developer brings the project into compliance with the FCA.

If the DRP determines that there are encroachments or violations during the two-year survival and maintenance period, the developer must correct these issues. After the two-year survival and maintenance period ends, the DRP enforces FCA regulations. The DRP first tries to correct violations through public education and cooperation. After that, DRP can issue warning notices and civil citations to force compliances. Any collected fines fund DRP's restoration plan for mitigation of the site.

Howard County provides the following recommendations for project success in regards to forest conservation:

  1. Request an extension from DPZ if a project is incomplete.
  2. Verify the installation and replacement of forest conservation signs prior to scheduled inspections.
  3. Educate the local community of forest conservation objectives and regulations.  It is best to respond to small problems before they become big problems.
  4. Routinely monitor easements to assess tree survival and identify site-specific stressors.  Planting the right trees for a site will cost less than repeatedly replacing the wrong trees.  A developer may need to revise an FCP to deal with a problem.
  5. Numerous invasive species thrive in Howard County and are capable of overtaking existing and planted trees.  Once again, routine monitoring and management can prevent a small problem from becoming a big problem.

December 5, 2011

Ipad Apps for Lawyers

I was recently gifted an iPad 2, an item with which I am mildly in love. I have discovered a few apps which I am using regularly in my law practice. Since I have had so many people ask about the utility of tablets in the practice of law, I thought I would blog about my favorite apps. I should preface this list with the statement that I have not paid for a single app - every app on this list was free (legally) when I downloaded it.

Blogger - Blogger is the Google blogging software that Taylor Legal uses to publish our blog. The Blogger app lets me quickly post from my iPad. The app was designed for functionality with an iPhone, so it can be a bit cumbersome to write long posts. This app is best for short posts, such as an individual link to a news article.

Constitution - Constitution is simply a copy of the US Constitution in an easy to navigate format. Each section is accessible individually, and notes are included detailing information on clauses and amendments, as well as historical notes relating to ratification. Additionally, the app features short biographies on each signer of the Constitution.

Dragon Dictation - Dragon Dictation records speech to text. The program does a fairly good job of accurately recording notes. Punctuation can be included by speaking common phrases such as "question mark" or "dollar sign".

Dictionary - in an app. This is great for when you just can not break out the old Rand McNally - or when you have been challenged in a game of Scrabble.

Dropbox - The Dropbox app links to your Dropbox account that remotely stores files. This allows access to your documents while you are out of the office.

Evernote - Evernote stores notes, links, pics, and the like and syncs with all the devices that have the program installed on it. One useful feature of Evernote is that the program automatically converts printed or handwritten text in images so that it is searchable.

Fastcase - Fastcase's app provides free access to items in it's law library.

iTranslate - iTranslate is a program that will convert text from one language to another. Additionally, it has a speech to text feature.

LawStack - LawStack provides quick access to the Federal Rules for Appellate Procedure, Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the Federal Rules of Evidence.

WestlawNext - WestlawNext provides access to Westlaw via my account.

November 28, 2011

Innovations in Wellness Awards

In October, Healthy Howard, Inc., certified 46 local businesses as "Healthy Workplaces". "The Healthy Workplaces program, a part of the County’s overall Healthy Howard Initiative, certifies county businesses that meet specific criteria in six main areas of worksite wellness-physical activity, mental health, environmental health,nutrition, safety and culture of wellness."

Just this past week, Healthy Howard awarded Tower Federal Credit Union and Verizon Wireless for their innovations in wellness. The program awarded $500 to businesses from three categories: small, medium, and large. Businesses that wanted to highlight specific policies designed to benefit the overall health of their workplaces were encouraged to apply for their Innovation Award. The Howard County website lists the benefits of being a member of Healthy Howard as including:
  • Public recognition of membership in Healthy Howard from the Health Department
  • Increasing employee morale by committing to their well-being
  • Eligibility to win an Innovations in Wellness Award
  • Business listed in print, and in online publicity
  • Healthy Workplaces plaque for display
  • Worksite wellness-related newsletters and resources from the Health Department
  • Health Department support of efforts and plans for activities and policy development
  • Improved employee health and productivity resulting in cost savings

The website also provides a toolkit for initiating healthy workplace policies, a manual for assessing your business's policies, and a list of healthy alternatives for workplace vending machines.

November 20, 2011

Urban Farming

The ABA has a great article on urban farming and the zoning issues that affect it:

November 14, 2011

Green Tax Credits

Howard County is considering implementing tax credits for LEED certified homes. The Baltimore Sun reports:
Under the bill, owners of newly built homes that meet the "silver" standard in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED certification, awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, could receive up to a 25 percent discount on their county property tax bill, while homes with the highest LEED rating could earn a 75 percent discount the first year.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED certification indicates that the building being certified achieves sustainability by meeting criteria in the following categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, locations and linkages, awareness and education, innovation in design, and regional priority. Buildings are scored on a scale of 0-100; the higher the score, the better the property meets sustainability standards under the LEED rubric. The resulting scores are then classified as silver, gold, or platinum.

The proposed tax credit in Howard County would provide homeowners who have achieved different levels of certification with different tax credits. According to the Sun,
"The legislation would give homeowners in Howard who have a LEED-certified silver rating a 25 percent tax credit. Those with "gold" certifications would receive a 50 percent discount, and "platinum" ratings would yield a 75 percent discount against county property taxes.... After the second year registering for the credit, a homeowner would have a 25 percent decrease each year, lowering their tax credit allotment. After four years, the credit would expire."
USGBC has a Maryland branch, which can provide individuals with more detailed information about LEED certification in Howard County.

November 7, 2011

Zombie Ground Rents

Just when I thought Halloween was over, zombie ground rents seem to have risen from the dead.

The Baltimore Sun had a great article detailing the recent Maryland Court of Appeals ruling which overturned the method of extinguishing ground rents created by the Maryland Legislature in 2007. Ground rents are a tenure, created by a grant in fee simple, where the grantor reserves to himself and his heirs a  rent, which is the interest of the money value of the land. Ground rents apply to the real estate, but not the structures attached to the land, such as a home or outbuilding. Zombie ground rents are those with no active - or in some cases known - ground rent owner.

Ground rents in Maryland are often vestiges of colonial America, with some dating back to the 1600s. The fees associated with the ground rent are often nominal. Some ground rent owners do not attempt to collect the fees, as the costs associated with the collection are deemed too high compared to the actual rent. Additionally, some ground rent owners do not know that they have the right to collect at all, as they received the right as an inheritance. Absentee ground rent owners can make selling property incredibly difficult for homeowners, especially those seeking a mortgage from an out-of-state bank unfamiliar with the peculiarities of Maryland's ground rent system. Additionally, in Maryland, the owner of the ground rent can place a lien against the buildings if the ground rent is not paid. This has led to many difficulties for homeowners who are looking to sell their home, only to discover that a lien was placed upon the building.

In 2007, the Maryland State legislature attempted to remedy these difficulties by passing a law requiring ground rent owners to register their right with the State Department of Assessments and Taxation. If the ground rent was not registered, a homeowner whose property was encumbered could pay a fee and have the property released from the ground rent. On October 25, 2011, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that this provision of the ground rent legislation was invalid. The case, Charles Muskin, Trustee v. State Department of Assessments and Taxation, No. 140, September Term, 2010, held that not registering a property did not eliminate the property rights held by the ground rent owner. The Court held that the legislation provided for a taking without just compensation of the property rights of the ground rent owner, and noted that the legislation provided no method for appeal once the rights were extinguished. The court also noted:

Real property and contractual rights form the basis for economic stability, such as it is, has been, and will become again hopefully. Allowing the “mere will of the Legislature” to shift drastically the fee simple ownership of land or cancel contractualobligations will shake further the confidence of citizens in their constitutional protections from government interference.

October 31, 2011

Haunted Houses

Happy Halloween!
Happy Halloween, Howard County!

I just finished carving my pumpkin, and, in the spirit of the season, I thought I would share with you a little legal horror story, which I first heard in law school.

The case in question is Stambovsky v. Ackley, 169 A.D.2d 254 (NY App. Div. 1991). The facts of the case are thus:

Helen Ackley owned a home in Nyack, New York. She and her family had repeatedly reported the home as being haunted by poltergeists. Their tales of supernatural disturbances had appeared in the local newspaper an three occassions, as well as Reader's Digest. The home was also included on a walking tour of the city of Nyack as a haunted house.

A few years later, Ms. Ackley put her haunted house on the market with Ellis Realty. Jeffrey Stambovsky signed a contract to purchase the house, and made a down payment of $32,500 on the purchase price of $650,000. Mr. Stambovsky was not from Nyack and was unaware of the spooky character the home possessed. Needless to say, when he did hear of the otherworldly haunts who were told to roam the home, he wanted out of the contract. He did not attend the closing for the sale of the house, resulting in his forfeiting of the down payment.

Mr. Stambovsky sued Ms. Ackley for the return of the down payment. The New York Supreme Court (their trial court) dismissed his action, as New York followed the property law doctrine of caveat emptor - buyer beware - and said that the seller had no duty to inform a potential buyer of the alleged hauntings. Mr. Stambovsky appealed. The appellate court reversed the decision. The appellate court said that while caveat emptor would normally bar a recission action, in this case "the most meticulous inspection and the search would not reveal the presence of poltergeists at the premises or unearth the property's ghoulish reputation in the community". While the court did not say that it believed in ghosts, because Ackley had made the claim so well known the court ruled that the house was haunted as a matter of law.

The legal term for a haunted house is stigmatized property, as it is property which buyers or tenants may shun for reasons that are unrelated to its physical condition or features. A haunted house has a phenomena stigma, but not all jurisdictions recognize this as something that needs to be disclosed. Other types of stigma include criminal stigma (where the house was a brothel or drug den), murder/suicide stigma, public stigma (where the house is famous to many people and any reasonable person can be expected to know of it), and debt stigma (where the previous owners were hounded by debt collectors at the home).

We at Taylor Legal wish you a very happy and safe Halloween!

October 25, 2011

Banks Giving Away Foreclosures

Earlier in the week, the Washington Post reported that some banks are giving away foreclosed properties rather than trying to maintain and sell homes in blighted areas. The article highlighted the efforts in Cleveland to minimize the damage an abandoned home can do to an already depressed neighborhood. In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corporation receives properties from banks which donated under an Ohio law passed in 2009 designed to created county land reutilization corporations (LRCs) - which are being referred to as land banks.

Land banking is a traditional method of investing. A purchaser will acquire large tracts of undeveloped land and hold the property until the time it becomes profitable again. In Cleveland, however, the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corporation operates a little differently. The group "is committed to the healthy, sustainable redevelopment of Cuyahoga County. The CCLRC will exhibit this ongoing commitment through efforts such as deconstruction, the appropriate and innovative re-use of vacant land, and the use of energy efficient, green rehabilitation and new construction standards."

October 18, 2011

Howard County Housing to Host “Mortgage Late? Don’t Wait!” a Foreclosure Prevention Event

Zoning and the Residential Business

Earlier in the month, Katherine Taylor posted to our blog an article from the Small Business Association (SBA) which highlighted some of the difficulties that residential – i.e. home based – businesses face. The SBA estimates that up to 50% of small businesses are run out of a person's home. With the increasing use of internet tools, such as video-conferencing and online faxing services, those with an entrepreneurial spirit can easily jump-start a company from their garage.  Additionally, with larger businesses employing furlough days and flex-time, traditional corporate work is being performed at home.

Having a home based businesses is not without it's challenges. Zoning laws for home based businesses are often very stringent. The SBA notes that zoning codes frequently prohibit signs, vehicles of certain classes, exterior improvements relating to the business, and outdoor storage. Additionally, zoning codes can limit the number of employees of a home based business and the number of visitors.

In Howard County, there are a few very specific zoning regulations (opens a .pdf) that a home based business should be aware of:

  • The home-based business can't occupy more than 33% of the gross floor area of the dwelling OR 800 square feet, whichever is less;
  • The business owner can't have clients visit in a detached garage;
  • There can be no exterior evidence of the business;
  • Only certain occupations are allowed to conduct home-based businesses.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list, it gives a general idea of the difficulties faced by a potential business owner seeking to establish their business out of their home. Some of the regulations are very sensible - let's face it, no one wants a semi-truck rolling up their street at three in the morning so the neighbor can get the latest shipment of widgets; however, in an economy that is not based on manufacturing but on intellectual products, home based businesses are likely to have little impact on the residential characteristics of the neighborhood.

For those looking to start a residential business, the SBA does have a great page on establishing a home based business.

October 9, 2011

Anne Arundel county zoning lawsuit

October 3, 2011

What is Eminent Domain?

Earlier this week, I posted a news article on Howard County tabling eminent domain. So, what is eminent domain? Black's Law Dictionary, 8th edition, defines eminent domain as "The inherent power of a government entity to take privately owned property, esp. land, and convert it to public use, subject to reasonable compensation for the taking." Black's quotes John E. Nowak and Ronald D. Rotunda's Constitutional Law :
The term 'eminent domain' is said to have originated with Grotius, the seventeenth century legal scholar. Grotius believed that the state possessed the power to take or destroy property for the benefit of the social unit, but he believed that when the state so acted, it was obligated to compensate the injured property owner for his losses. Blackstone, too, believed that society had no general power to take the private property of landowners, except on the payment of a reasonable price. The just compensation clause of the fifth amendment to the Constitution was built upon this concept of a moral obligation to pay for governmental interference with private property. (quoting Bauman v. Ross, 167 U.S. 548, 574, 17 S.Ct. 966, 976 (1897).

September 26, 2011

Benefit Corporations, Benefit LLCs, and Marketing

In June, Maryland saw the creation of America's first benefit LLC, Clean Currents, a green energy company. Clean Currents was created under the recently passed SB 595, a follow up to the state's benefit corporation law passed last year. SB 595 was sponsored by State Senator Jamie B. Raskin (D-Mont).

Two weeks ago, Governor Martin O'Malley attended the inauguration of Blessed Coffee, a Takoma Park coffee shop. Blessed Coffee is a registered benefit corporation under the law passed last year. The company has pledged to allocate 50% of its net profits from wholesale revenue to social programs in Ethiopia's coffee growing regions, and 50% to community based organizations. O'Malley said of Blessed Coffee that “(i)t's a corporation that looks at not only the bottom line of profit, but also the bottom line of social responsibility.”
The Washington Post article, Takoma Park coffee firm holds 'Blessed' event, in quoting Raskin highlights one of the challenges the state has in encouraging benefit corporations:

“'The law allows community-minded companies to take the high bid,'    Raskin said.
The main benefit of the law, however, is as a branding and marketing tool. The community feels that it's a part of the business, and people are often willing to pay for products when they know the money goes toward groups and causes they support, Raskin said.” (sic)
Cause marketing can be effective. A 2010 study said that 41% of Americans have purchased a product in the past year because the product was associated with either a social or environmental cause. The same study said that 88% of Americans think it is acceptable for a company to involve a cause or issue in its marketing; contrast this to the Millenial Americans, of whom 94% think it is acceptable for a company to involve a cause or issue in its marketing. Additionally, Millenials use a company's support of social or environmental issues to determine other corporate interactions. 87% of Millenials use social and environmental causes as a benchmark to determine where to work. 79% of Millenials use the same benchmark to determine where to invest. As Millenials become more active participants in the marketplace, benefit corporations and benefit LLCs are poised to reap the benefits (pun intended).

September 19, 2011

Green jobs in Maryland

Last week, I read an interesting article in the Baltimore Sun entitled "Green jobs economy has hits and misses in Maryland". The article said that "(c)lean jobs locally grew 2.6 percent annually from 2003 through last year..." - a rate which is apparently indicative of an uneven pattern of growth for Maryland's green economy.

Maryland has made many efforts to stimulate the green economy. You may recall my blog a few weeks ago on the recent legislation pertaining to B Corps. Additionally, in 2009, Maryland created the non-profit Maryland Workforce Corporation to provide job training, which received a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration to benefit it's Mid-Atlantic Regional Collaborative Green Consortium.  As part of the grant, Maryland Workforce Corporation has a website called MARC Regional Green Jobs, which provides a posting board for employers to list green jobs that are available.

MARC defines green jobs as "jobs involved in economic activities that help protect or restore the environment or conserve natural resources". These jobs deal with renewable energy, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas reduction, pollution reduction and cleanup, recycling and waste reduction, agricultural and natural resource conservation, and education, compliance, public awareness and training. These jobs are expected to provide direct and indirect green goods and services, specialized inputs, and the distribution of green goods.

If you have questions on how green jobs can benefit your business, please contact our office.

September 18, 2011

Purpose driven profits

Howard Magazine has a great article in it's September 2011 edition on local businesses with purpose driven profits.

September 12, 2011

Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program

The Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contract Program was created to allow equal access to federal contracts by women-owned small businesses (WOSBs), and to economically disadvantaged women-owned small businesses (EDWOSBs). This program allows contracting agencies to set aside certain federal contracts for WOSBs and EDWOSBS. Businesses who want to participate in the program must register with the Business Partner Network. The business must have a Data Universal Numbering Systems (DUNS), which is provided by Dun & Bradstreet; a Tax Identification Number; and data on the business, including the number of employees and basic accounting.

A business must satisfy certain criteria to be eligible for the program. In addition to being within one of approved North American Industry Classification Systems codes (opens a spreadsheet), the business must meet certain ownership and control standards, set forth below:

At least 51% unconditional and direct ownership by women
At least 51% unconditional and direct ownership by women
At least 51% unconditional and direct control by women
At least 51% unconditional and direct control by women
A woman must manage day-to-day operations, make long term decisions for the business, hold the highest officer position, and work at the business full-time during working hours
A woman must manage day-to-day operations, make long term decisions for the business, hold the highest officer position, and work at the business full-time during working hours
No limit
The woman in charge of operations must have a personal net worth of less than $750,000, with an AGI of less than $350,000 over the last three years prior to certification, and a FMV of all assets of less than $6,000,000.

A business can either self-certify, or be certified by one of four groups recognizd by the U.S. Small Business Administration. The four groups are the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the National Women Business Owners Corporation, The US Women's Chamber of Commerce, and the Women's Business Enterprise National Council.

The WOSB Federal Contracting Program is important to Howard County because of the proximity of Ft. Meade. Under the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC), Howard County expects Ft. Meade to gain 22,000 new jobs. Local businesses can benefit by participating in federal contracting opportunities associated with the base.

If you have any questions about how either the WOSB program or BRAC can benefit your business, please feel free to contact our office.

September 6, 2011

Here comes the story of the Hurricane

Two natural disasters in one week? As a good friend of mine said the other day, I thought that I was getting away from bad weather when I moved here from Kansas. Nonetheless, Hurricane Irene struck Howard County with some driving rain over the last weekend of August. Fortunately, we did not lose power at my home, and aside from some impromptu trench digging to alleviate a giant puddle threatening to flood our patio, we did not have any hurricane related damage.

Others were not so lucky, with a few still without power as of Labor Day. A friend's neighbor in Silver Spring had a very large pine tree down in their yard. The uprooted tree pulled down power lines and left the neighborhood without electricity for days. Although in this instance the tree seemed to be contained on one property, the implications could have been entirely different had the tree fallen into an adjacent property.

In tort law, there is a concept called intervening force. Intervening force is when the acts of a third person intervene between the defendant's conduct and the plaintiff's injury. One type of intervening cause is known as an “act of God” or “force of nature”. Events, such as hurricanes, are frequently considered such acts. Sometimes, if an intervening force is great enough, it becomes a superseding force and the defendant's negligence is cut off from liability.

The circumstances are different if the defendant knew that there was a problem with his property. For example, In Kimble v. Macintosh Hemphill Co, a Pennsylvania case from 1948 where a negligently maintained roof collapsed in unusually high winds, the court ruled that “(o)ne who fails in his duty to remedy a defective or dangerous condition is liable for injuries resulting therefrom.” Similarly, if a landowner knows he has a damaged tree on his property, and the tree falls into the neighbor's property because of the damage, it is likely that he would have liability for the damage created by the tree.

Insurance policies create another wrinkle in hurricane damage. As the Baltimore Sun reported on September 2nd, filing an insurance claim for damage during the hurricane can result in insurers charging a hurricane deductible. However, this deductible can only be imposed if the location was under a hurricane warning. On the Western shore, only St. Mary's county was under a hurricane warning; the remaining counties under the warning are all located on the Eastern shore (Caroline, Dorchester, Somerset, St. Mary's, Talbots, Wicomico and Worcester). More information regarding insurance issues raised by Hurricane Irene can be found at the Maryland Insurance Administration website. They have provided a FAQ about weather related losses (link opens a .pdf file).

If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact our office.

August 29, 2011

If the house is a rockin'...

As the entire world knows by now, on 23 August 2011, a 5.8 earthquake occurred in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone . I was working from my home-based Taylor Legal office in Howard County, Maryland when the vibrations hit at around 1:55 pm, EST. I didn't even realize I was experiencing an earthquake until the shaking stopped.

While I grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore, I lived in Kansas for almost a decade before settling in Howard County. In Kansas I became accustomed to tornadoes, having gone storm spotting (a major departure from my normal tornado mode of hiding in the basement with the local weather on the TV). I've seen hail the size of softballs, and lived through a micro-burst. I'm even okay with hurricanes, as advance warnings are sufficient to take cover and batten down (as I am doing now in preparation for hurricane Irene's approach). I can honestly say that I am not comfortable with earthquakes. What started as a small rumble evolved into a very loud shaking, and I felt like I was surfing in my office chair. The whole thing lasted about 30 seconds and was over so quickly, it didn't even occur to me to evacuate. Fortunately, we didn't sustain any damage to our current home – just a few pictures became cockeyed, and a candle migrated across the table.

The events made Katherine Taylor and me wonder -- as we were later discussing contract language for a couple of upcoming residential real estate settlements in which we represent the buyers -- what disclosures concerning earthquake damage, earthquake soundness or seismic activity must be made by a residential home seller to a buyer? I flipped through the most recent three-page Maryland Residential Property Disclosure and Disclaimer Statement, and there is no direct mention of seismic activities. If a building had suffered damage to any of the covered areas (i.e., foundation, heating system, etc.) of which the seller has knowledge, then would it have to be disclosed on the form? What if a buyer has moved from out of state and, not knowing that Maryland has had seismic activity, does not ask whether there have been any earthquakes? Does the seller have to disclose that there was an earthquake (even if the seller is not aware of any actual damage to the seller's home)? As Maryland building codes do not specifically address seismic engineering, there could be damage which is not apparent. Granted, earthquakes are rare events here. Allview Estates and Columbia were the sites of a series of small earthquakes in 1993 and again in 1996, but these were of a magnitude no greater than 2.0.

I looked at California's requirements, as that state experiences frequent seismic activity. The California Department of Real Estate offers a 79 page booklet called Disclosures in Real Property Transactions (link opens a .pdf), which requires sellers to disclose the absence of foundation anchor bolts; unbraced or inappropriately braced perimeter cripple walls and first-story walls; unreinforced masonry perimeter foundation and dwelling walls; habitable room or rooms above a garage; and water heaters that are not anchored, strapped, or braced. Additionally, the California Seismic Safety Commission has developed a Homeowner’s Guide to Earthquake Safety (link opens a .pdf) for further clarification and guidelines about earthquake safety.

Who would have thought that earthquake activity could become a question for a buyer in a real estate transaction in Maryland?

Feel free to contact our office if you need any further information.

August 22, 2011

B Corps in Maryland

Benefit Corporations (also known as B Corps) are corporations formed with the intent to create a beneficial public good. B Corps are held to a higher standard than traditional corporations in that they must create social, environmental and community benefits. The first official B Corp was created in 2007, when Method, a manufacturer of green cleaning products, amended their corporate documents to reflect their intention of benefitting the public good through their business practices. Maryland became the first state to create a separate legal entity for B Corps in April 2010.

B Labs, is a non-profit which provides certification as a B Corp to qualified business applicants. The goal of B Labs is to prevent corporations from “greenwashing”, by providing a third-party stamp-of-approval for businesses that are actually fulfilling their claims. Certification is a stringent process, which requires passing B Labs B Impact Rating System. Applicants fill out a 220 question survey with questions delving into things such as recycling practices, employee demographics, community involvement, and employment benefits. B Labs compiles the results, and after tallying the points, grants certification to companies that have met the minimum passing rate.

On B Labs website, the organization features highlights of some corporations which have passed certification. Emphasized areas include employee demographics, sustainable environmental practices, and community involvement. For example, B Corporation says Method has “>50% women” as employees, has “>50% facilities LEED certified”, and that “>50% employees participate in company-wide service days”.

B Labs certification is not required for a Maryland company to register as a B Corp, but it certainly helps for the business to prove that the requirements of the Maryland law are being met. Additionally, certified B Corps can obtain discounted goods and services from other certified B Corps.

There are currently no tax incentives for B Corps at either the federal or state level. Philadelphia recently instituted a tax break for B Corps, a move that is expected to inspire other municipalities to offer similar incentives. Additionally, it is not unreasonable to assume that state and federal tax law will eventually be amended to reflect the unique nature of B Corps.

If you have any further questions about how becoming a B Corp can benefit your business, please feel free to contact our office.

August 15, 2011

FastTrack for Business Development

On June 30, 2011, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley held a press conference about his initiative, FastTrack, part of the Maryland Made Easy program. Under Executive Order 01.01.2011.12, also known as the Governor's Economic Development and Job Creation Fast Track, O'Malley seeks to create jobs through expediting the review of business and economic development projects that will have significant impact on their respective communities.

FastTrack coordinates the review process by state agencies, such as the Department of Business and Economic Development and the Environmental, Planning, Housing and Community Development. FastTrack complements the Central Business Licensing Initiative already in use under the Department of Business and Economic Development and the Department of Information Technology by providing “a one-stop shop to complete and submit various applications and permits regardless of agency or type of business.” For a project to be eligible for FastTrack review, it must meet certain criteria. First, the project must expect to produce jobs or economic development that will significantly impact Maryland, the region, county or municipality. Second, the project requires that Maryland issue at least one permit. Lastly, the project must either be in a Priority Funding Area, or meet the criteria for an exception. A priority funding area is usually a Protected Forest Area, Transit Oriented Development, an Enterprise Zone, or a Critical Area. A project developer can easily check if his project falls within a Priority Funding Area through an interactive map on the Maryland Made Easy website,

Not all projects will receive FastTrack review. Applications for FastTracking must be submitted to the FastTrack Coordinating Committee. Projects will be evaluated under eight criteria. First, the committee will consider the significance of the potential economic, job and business development of the project of the project in relation to the size of the jurisdiction that the project will benefit. Secondly, the committee will consider whether the project is designated a priority project by local government. Third, the committee will look at whether the project involves either infill development or redevelopment. Fourth, the committee will consider whether the project conflicts with an important state policy of goal, such as whether the project is located in a targeted ecological area. Fifth, the committee will determine whether the project furthers an important state policy or goal. Sixth, the committee will look at how quickly the project will proceed after receiving the necessary permits and approvals. Seventh, the project's environmental impacts will be considered. Lastly, the committee will consider it's own capacity to manage projects accepted for review.

Projects that are recommended by the FastTrack Coordinating Committee must then be brought before the Chair, who will then decide whether to accept a project for review. The Lieutenant Governor will Chair the FastTrack Coordinating Committee. Current Lieutenant Governor Brown said “Governor O'Malley and I believe that state government has a responsibility to lay the foundation for job creation and economic growth in Maryland, and making it easier for companies to do business in our state is a key part of that effort. Our new fast track initiative will help expedite the business development process while maintaining standards for smart growth and environmental protection. I am honored to lead this effort on behalf of Governor O'Malley and I look forward to working closely with Maryland's business community to make the FastTrack program a success.”

For more information, please feel free to contact our office.

August 9, 2011


Consider this blog a forum to discuss legal issues for Howard County and the State of Maryland. Our practice at Taylor Legal™ focuses on land use and zoning, small business and corporate law, local and state government law, alcoholic beverage licensing, contract drafting, and succession planning. I will be posting to this blog as noteworthy topics arise which affect our clients.

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