Zoning officials at odds over variance authority

October 07, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

The Board of Appeals and the Howard County planning and zoning director agreed last night to disagree on the idea of granting variances without the board's approval.

Variances allow property owners to exceed the limitations of their zoning. For example, a homeowner would need a variance to build an addition closer to a neighbor's property than zoning regulations allow.

Joseph Rutter, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, told the board that he was surprised to hear board members' objections in a newspaper article two weeks ago, especially after board members raised no objections when he told them about the proposed change six months ago.

Board members have said the change, to be proposed this week in the county administration's comprehensive rezoning petition for the eastern part of the county, would put variances under the control of the administration instead of the "impartial" Appeals Board.

But Mr. Rutter argued last night that the board would have the same control over contested cases that it has now.

The process would provide a safety net, he said, in which the board would substitute its judgment for the decision made by the department.

"You start all over again; you hear the same evidence," Mr. Rutter said.

He said his staff had tracked variance cases for two years and found no need for property owners to spend the extra time and money required by board review.

"In 99 percent of the cases, you haven't come to a different conclusion than ours," Mr. Rutter said.

Board members were not converted by Mr. Rutter's arguments, but one, James A. Caldwell, suggested a compromise.

Mr. Rutter's staff currently decides variances of 10 percent or less, such as a house mistakenly built 5 feet into a 50-foot buffer area. Mr. Caldwell said the board might be willing to consider expanding that authority to 20 percent to 25 percent.

Permitting the planning and zoning staff to grant variances would also save time for the board, Mr. Rutter said. It would mean the board could concentrate on special exception cases, which are more difficult, he said.

The administrative process would take about half as long, he said, largely because the Planning Board must make a recommendation before the Board of Appeals can hear a case.

The department charges $310 to handle its administrative variance cases, about half the Board of Appeals fee.

Mr. Rutter said he hoped to complete the comprehensive rezoning petition today and file it with the Zoning Board. The county Planning Board will probably hold hearings on the new regulations and zoning map changes next month. County Council members, sitting as the Zoning Board, will probably begin hearing testimony in December, he said.

If major changes to the zoning plan are considered by the Zoning Board, a second round of hearings may extend the process into next spring.

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