The tiny town of Washington Grove, slapped in the past two months with $11 million in lawsuits by two businesses challenging town zoning ordinances, is asking the Maryland Municipal League for help to fight the suits.
The Southland Corp., owner of the 7-Eleven convenience store chain, is suing the town for $6.8 million over a municipal zoning ordinance adopted last year that will force one of its stores out of the community. A restaurant called The Works, also affected by the ordinance, joined in the fight by filing a $4.2 million suit against the town.
Washington Grove Mayor Barbara Hawk said that the town is seeking aid "in the order of hands-on legal assistance," rather than money. She did not elaborate.
The 550-resident town has a budget this year of $130,000.
A spokesman for the league, a coalition of 131 cities and towns across the state, said the organization's board of directors will consider Washington Grove's request for legal aid at its October meeting.
The two businesses suing Washington Grove are side by side in the town's only commercial district, at Rte. 124 and Railroad Street. Last year, the Town Council adopted a zoning amendment that redefined the commercial center and effectively designated the 7-Eleven and The Works as "nonconforming" uses. The businesses were given a year to close.
The zoning amendment, which town officials said is aimed at controlling the litter and loitering of high-volume businesses, limits the operations in the commercial zone to government offices such as a post office, beauty and barber shops, retail meat markets and professional offices.
In the meantime, the council has passed laws requiring that hours at the stores be shortened and that a 25-cent deposit be charged on beverage containers.
Lawyers for Southland, which operates 7,390 stores nationwide, have charged that the zoning amendment constitutes "police power without valid purpose." Lawyers also contend that ordinances requiring deposits and shortened hours violate the company's constitutional rights.
Lawyers for The Works could not be reached this week for comment.
Washington Grove officials filed suit in April asking the Montgomery County Circuit Court to order the businesses to conform to the hours and deposit ordinances.