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A retired Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge ruled Thursday that a petition to bring the Walmart Supercenter annexation to a referendum had to fail because under state law Town Manager Daniel Mears does not have the authority to draft guidelines for how the town would respond to the petition.

Judge James Lombardi ruled that the guidelines violated due process because they were released two days before the referendum petition was due and received no public hearing, which he said “taints the whole process.”

Lombardi’s decision means that there will be no referendum, and that the decision of the town council to allow the annexation stands.

Lombardi was particularly critical that the guidelines were released two days before the referendum petition’s due date.

Mears released a set of guidelines on Nov. 8, two days before the referendum petition needed to be submitted to the town, giving the procedures by which Mears would validate the signatures on the referendum.

Lombardi agreed with the argument made by attorney Michael Berman, who represented most of the plantiffs in the lawsuit against the town, that only the town council has the authority to draft such guidelines with its legislative power.

Town Attorney Fred Sussman argued that state law gives the town’s chief executive and administrative officer the authority to validate the referendum petition signatures, which implies he can draft guidelines to complete the validation as an administrative power, not a legislative power.

Michael Epner, an attorney with representing town resident and referendum petitioner Michael Runfola, agreed with Sussman on Mears’ authority.

The annexation, requested by Faison Capital Development of Charlotte, N.C., and Johel Limited Partnership, intends to bring 14.11 acres into the town in order for Faison to build a 181,500-square-foot Walmart Supercenter, 50,000 square feet of office space and three commercial buildings.

The town council approved the annexation on a 3-2 vote Sept. 27.

Lombardi chose not to rule on the legality of having four resolutions on the referendum petition, nor did he rule on whether the referendum was invalid because the process was not safeguarded from alleged misleading circulators or nonpresent circulators.

Reactions were split along the lines of representing parties.

“I’m disappointed,” Runfola said. “I think the people will be disappointed and outraged.”

Jim Jarboe, one of the leaders of the referendum petition gathering, said, “The town and Walmart won, but the people of La Plata lost because [of] the mistake of a town employee.”

Jarboe said he was not sure if referendum supporters would appeal.

Steve Scott of Scott Law Group in La Plata, who represents Faison Capital Development in the annexation, said, “We’re pleased with the outcome, which we believe is consistent with the law.”

La Plata attorney Sue Greer, who represents Johel Limited Partnership, which owns 10 acres in the annexation, said, “As far as Johel, our purpose all along has been to bring 10 acres into the town, which is in the town’s Municipal Growth Element [of the town’s comprehensive plan] to be brought into the town. We’re pleased this will allow our property to be added to the town and improve the town’s tax base.”

pwarner@somdnews.com