Board of Appeals to fight zoning variance rules

September 29, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

The county Board of Appeals is preparing to fight for turf threatened by new comprehensive rezoning regulations.

Board members have come out against proposed zoning rules that would give the county Department of Planning and Zoning the power to grant zoning variances without the board's approval.

The change is intended to save time and money for property owners by cutting the review process and fees nearly in half, said Joseph Rutter, county planning and zoning director. The new regulations would have to be approved by the County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board.

Variances allow property owners to exceed the limitations of their zoning. For example, a homeowner would need a variance to build a garage if the structure was to be closer to a neighboring property line than zoning regulations allowed. Mr. Rutter said about 90 percent of variance requests are from ordinary homeowners, not developers likely to face opposition to their requests.

But the change would switch approval authority "from an impartial board to an executive department," said appeals board member James Caldwell. "That's a significant philosophical change."

Mr. Rutter said anyone who is dissatisfied with a variance decision made by his department could take the issue before the county Board of Appeals, which would have authority to overrule the planning department's decision.

"That's making a second level of bureaucracy," said appeals board Chairwoman Evelyn Tanner. Adding a planning staff review would cost property owners more money in legal fees and cost the planning staff more money to deal with variance cases, she said.

Mr. Rutter is set to meet with the board to discuss members' differences and other comprehensive rezoning issues during the board's meeting next Tuesday night.

Under current procedure, property owners seeking variances must submit a petition to the Department of Planning and Zoning. The petition generally is reviewed by five county departments, with county planners preparing a technical staff report with a recommendation to grant or deny the variance.

After that 10-week process, the case is heard by the five-member county Planning Board, which, like the appeals board, is appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the County Council.

Currently, the Planning Board must issue its recommendation before the Board of Appeals can hear the case and decide whether to deny or grant the variance.

The entire process can take four months, and Mr. Rutter contends that his staff can review requests, hold a hearing and make a decisionin six weeks.

But Jack Andrews, administrative assistant to the appeals board, argued that the board can usually speed up the process if a petitioner is in a hurry.

"When people have requested an expedited hearing, the board has always granted it," he said. "We've heard cases and turned them around in less than two weeks when people have required it."

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