Zoning Enforcers Told To Ease Up, Be Selective

Respond Only To Complaints, Commissioners Order

June 02, 1991|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff writer

The County Commissioners have directed Carroll's zoning enforcers toinvestigate only when residents call in a complaint and to overlook and no longer search for most commonplace violations.

But the commissioners were not unanimous on their May 16 memo, which was sent to Department of Permits and Regulations Director J. Michael Evans and signed only by Commissioner President Donald I. Dell.

"The board has taken the position to respond to complaints only or situations which obviously have an adverse affect (sic) on public health and safety" until the commissioners review an internal study onthe zoning ordinance and amend the code, says the memo.

Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said she is uncertain about the board's intention and that the commissioners did not concur on the policy change beforeissuing the mandate. She said she believes the zoning enforcement office was functioning well and that the change is a step "backward."

"I have concerns," she said. "It could bring back (junk) problems we had in the past that we had begun to clean up. We've cleaned up a lot of areas of the county that were pretty rough-looking."

The policy change conflicts with the popular political rhetoric often heard throughout county government about preserving Carroll's aesthetic qualities, she said.

"If we let (regulations) slide, that's when we can begin to see problems," she said. "People can take the attitude that, 'If the county doesn't care, why should I?' "

It also seemingly conflicts with the job description for the chief of zoning enforcement, who "is accountable for ensuring compliance with the zoning ordinance."

A May 23 memo from Evans instructs the zoning enforcement staff to "focus attention only on the complaint" in an investigation.It says other violations observed in conjunction with a complaint should be investigated if deemed an "obvious" threat to public welfare.

George Beisser, zoning enforcement chief and 25-year Maryland State Policeveteran, was hired in 1989 for the new position, created to crack down on violators. He declined to comment on the new policy.

Dell said the change signifies progress toward revising a 26-year-old ordinance and assuring that government won't harass property ownersover "trifling issues."

"As long as we have laws, we're going to follow them," said Dell, adding that the new policy is an interim measure. "But some need to be changed. Sometimes we get carried away with regulations.

"I told Mike (Evans) to back off a little bit and not act like policemen looking for every nit-pick thing they can find," said Dell. "We should make inspections when there's a complaint, but we shouldn't be patrolling the roads, looking for single cars and declaring it a junkyard."

Dell says he believes people have a rightto do what they want with their property without government interference. That laissez-faire philosophy was amplified in his recent statements on state land use and reforestation legislation.

"If it's a flagrant violation, we should investigate, but otherwise we can causeourselves much less trouble, and citizens won't find themselves in court because they have a junk car," he said.

Commissioner Elmer C.Lippy Jr. supports Dell's position.

But the county also could lose money by not prosecuting violators, who otherwise would be requiredto pay permit or development impact fees, said Ralph E. Green, bureau chief of Permits and Inspections.

In recent months, the commissioners have decried slumping revenues as they were forced to slash both the 1991 and 1992 budgets.

The Zoning Ordinance Oversight Committee has recommended changes to clarify the zoning ordinance. The commissioners say they hope the changes will reduce the number of zoning appeals and complaints from angry residents cited for violations.

Although Gouge expressed reservations about changing the enforcement policy, she did say in some cases the zoning ordinance is too restrictive and inspectors too zealous.

Gouge said a balance should be struck: Don't ignore zoning violations, but "don't put people in a position where they can't live on their own property."

Zoning changes have been studied for six years by two committees. Revised definitions, a key component of the regulations, are ready for public hearing, said Solveig L. Smith, zoning administrator. But the ZOO Committee has yet to study "conditional uses" and "accessory uses" -- exceptions to the ordinance which largely dictate the role of zoning enforcement, she said.

Since changes are expected, Evans said the county can avoid "bludgeoning someone unnecessarily" by easing up on enforcementpractices.

An assistant county attorney declined to comment on legal aspects of the directive.

Until the mandate, the county's two zoning inspectors responded to citizens' complaints and routinely patrolled territories to look for violations, such as illegal junkyards,sheds, mobile homes, signs, businesses and other structures or operations lacking permits. They also regularly filed reports of suspectedviolations during travels to and from investigations, and sometimes discovered multiple infractions on one property while responding to acomplaint.

In 1990, the zoning inspectors responded to 277 complaints lodged by residents and inspected 337 violations they discoveredthemselves through patrols. The overall number of inspections increased from 1,025 in 1989 to 1,250 last year, consistent with a decade-long trend, said a zoning official.

Dell cited several examples of what he considered "picayune" violations, including a home-based dried flower arranging business and a farmer who allowed all-terrain vehicle riders in an unused pasture.

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