Changes In Zoning Department Hit The Right Spot

Developers Pleased With More Efficient, Much Faster Service

January 16, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

A few weeks after County Executive Charles I. Ecker took office Dec.3, the Department of Planning and Zoning dramatically changed its way of doing business.

Warren H. Boyer, president of Glenwood Gardens, had complained to Ecker in a recent letter that the Department of Planning and Zoning was the "most arrogant, unreasonable group of people that I have ever had to deal with."

Monday, however, Boyer was saying he was "very impressed" with what he perceives as a new atmosphere within the department now that Ecker has fired director Uri Avin and replaced him with acting directorJoseph W. Rutter Jr. Getting plans through the department is faster and more efficient now, Boyer and other developers say.

Not only did Boyer receive a note from Ecker explaining the changes, but William O'Brien, chief of zoning administration and enforcement, sent Boyera letter of apology and visited him for a half-hour chat, Boyer said.

O'Brien was "very apologetic," Boyer said. "I was very impressedto hear these people admit they could make a mistake. The changes that appear to be coming are changes that are very much needed."

Those changes include getting county signatures on final plans in 10 days rather than in six to eight weeks, implementing a scheme to track plans as they move through various county departments, and refraining from treating department policy as though it were law.

Rouse Co. vice-president Alton J. Scavo said the planning and zoning department's attitude "seems to be better" now that the department is "cooperating within (county) rules and regulations."

Scavo said he is especially pleased with the 10-day signature turnaround on final plans. Having to wait "weeks and weeks" for the signatures was costly and inequitable, Scavo said.

"Lately, things have been done (on time) as they should be," Scavo said. Bureaucratic delays "in the best of times are frustrating. In the worst of times, they are disastrous."

PaulM. Revell, president of Terrafirm Development Limited, couldn't agree more. Revell, owner of 12 lots near Old Columbia Pike and Seneca Road, wrote Ecker Dec. 26 telling the new county executive in detail how he lost a buyer for the development because it took three years and$36,000 in county fees to go from sketch plan to plat recordation.

Acting planning and zoning director Rutter says three years is muchtoo long, especially for a small project with no complications. Revell got caught "between a rock and a hard place" when he happened to submit his plans at the time the county was enacting stiff new building laws, Rutter said.

The new laws "changed the rules, and althoughthey for the most part allowed us to significantly improve quality, we lost time in getting revisions up to speed," Rutter said.

The department focused on getting its staff apprised of the new regulations at the same time the department was experiencing its heaviest demand, Rutter said. Even now, his department gets 100 to 125 calls a day regarding plans in various stages, Rutter said.

Revell complained that his plans also were delayed because county departments examiningthem did not explain or share their recommendations with other departments. To avoid such delays in the future, Rutter created a trackingsystem. If plans become stalled, Rutter's staff will be alerted to find out why.

"Now, if an agency puts a plan on hold, we contact the (developer's) engineer directly," Rutter said. "If it's held up more than five days, we send a speed memo to find out why."

Rutter said his department also may have erred in giving policy the same forceas law.

"We should not be establishing policy without legislativeauthority," Rutter said. "Interpretations shouldn't be the law."

Once a developer has completed all the "legal hoops, a big frustration has been the signature process" in which three public works officials, two planning and zoning officials, a health department official and a soil conservation official sign off on a project.

"That had sometimes been taking six to eight weeks, which is inexcusable" because at that stage of the process, a developer's money is spent and nothing new is coming in, Rutter said.

Rutter, who is the last personto sign off, said his staff has "easily been meeting the 10-day deadline in the last three weeks" despite the December rush and several employees away on vacation. "I seldom sign the day it comes in," he said, "but it's just as rare for me not to sign by 8:30 the next morning."

Art Muegge, president of Riemer, Muegge and Associates, said the "mumbling and grumbling" that characterized his employees' conversations about the planning and zoning department appears to have been "squelched." Muegge said he can only assume that relations have improved.

John Troutman, president of the Troutman Co., says there is definitely a better attitude among DPW staff members and much more cooperation. "They are doing jobs in a timely fashion rather than dragging their feet," he said.

The changes, which lot owner Revell calls"late but wonderful," did not come soon enough to help him. His buyer terminated the contract because by the time the project went to plat recordation, the law had changed and Revell was unable to get permission to build on his lots.

Regardless, Revell says things will work out because the lots are very desirable. The new policies instituted by Rutter are all "welcome improvements," he said.

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