Richard Gauch can hardly stand to drive around the county any more. Anne Arundel's chief of zoning enforcement sees trouble everywhere hegoes.
Giant signs and flashing billboards. Dump trucks parked in driveways. Porches piled high with junk and debris. Ramshackle outbuildings. Rundown automobiles rusting in the weeds.
If Gauch had his way, zoning enforcement officers would sweep through the county, cleaning up every zoning violation they see. As it is, he says, the enforcement office is so understaffed that the best it can do is struggle to keep up with complaints.
Thousands of zoning violations "never get touched," Gauch said.
"You know, you could take a team of six to eight people and start in North County and spend a year coming down (south) -- just to clean up the signs," he said. "I don't like to ride around the county. It frustrates the hell out of me."
"It's unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable," said Jan Nuscher, the enforcement officer for South County. "We just can't keepup. We really have to drive down the road with blinders on."
Gauch has eight full-time enforcement officers to cover 400 square miles,plus more than 400 miles of waterfront. Their time is absorbed completely by handling complaints, more than 4,000 at any one time, he said.
"I'd like to say we're policing, but we aren't," Gauch said. "We're dealing by complaint. You're never going to clean up the county that way. We have some damn good legislation, but it's no good unlessit's enforced.
The enforcement office hasn't had an increase in staffing since 1987, he said, nor has it entered the computer age.
Gauch, who became chief of enforcement last year, wants to create a computer history of each of the county's properties. But so far all hehas is a tray for a computer to sit in.
In recent years the county has focused on environmental enforcement, conducted through the Department of Inspections and Permits, rather than on zoning enforcement, said Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis.
"The sentiment has never been to go out and look for people breaking the law. That wouldbe an astronomical cost," Lamb said.
This year, Gauch says he's going to ask for six computer terminals, a six-man "action enforcement" team, plus a paralegal, a clerk typist and an environmental officer.
"I'll probably not get any of it," Gauch said. "But it shows what direction we should be going."
Ideally, Gauch said, zoning enforcement should have both a complaint team and a team of six enforcement officers to "sweep" through specific areas of the county or to target specific kinds of zoning violations, such as signs or junk and debris.
"They would actually go into a community, work with it and clean it up. We don't even have the ability now to work with the community associations (so they can clean up the neighborhoods themselves) because we are so bogged down with people complaining."
Things could get even worse if agreements with three contractual enforcement officers are not renewed for the next fiscal year. Gauch fears contractual employees could be the first to go when the county starts seriousbelt-tightening.
If the department loses three officers, "We would become non-effective. It would be devastating. With the people we have now we can hardly keep our heads above water."
Nuscher said her workload will become even heavier come spring, when boating season resumes and she has to enforce a new law limiting to four the number of large boats that can be moored in private piers. Already, she said, she often has to work Saturdays and Sundays to keep up with complaints.
Gauch, who worked in other zoning fields for more than 20 years before becoming chief of enforcement, said enforcement is the "stepchild" of the zoning department.
"We are the only part of planning and zoning on the second floor. The rest are on third and fourth floors. We have always been referred to as 'those people down there.' "
Not only has enforcement suffered from a lack of manpower and respect, he said, but enforcement officers have had trouble getting the County Council to pass seemingly basic laws to make their jobs easier.
For example, enforcement officers cannot go on to citizens' property without permission. They sometimes have to climb on ladders to get a look at suspect properties, or wade through the water to check out waterfront violations.
Lamb considered sponsoring a bill granting such permission, but says she was rebuffed by county lawyers who feared citizens' rights would be abused.
She said she may resurrect the idea. "It's ridiculous that his people have to go around carrying boots and ladders."