Council gives appeals board an ultimatum Hear more cases or meet less, it says

January 22, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The Howard County Council told the board of appeals this week to hear more appeals or hold hearings only one night a week.

The board, which rules on requests for variances and special exceptions to the county zoning regulations, meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, except in August and during the Christmas holidays.

The council ultimatum came during a meeting with board members Tuesday to go over the board's $116,990 budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.

At issue is a $26,700 request to underwrite the cost of public hearings -- an amount equal to this year's budget, but $10,134 more than the board asked for in fiscal 1992. Board members are paid $45 each per public hearing, up to a maximum of $6,500, and receive an annual salary of $2,000.

Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, and Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, expressed concern that the board occasionally concludes a hearing in an hour or less.

If the board can't do more work than that, it should meet for a longer period once a week and save money, Ms. Pendergrass said. "We don't want you to meet twice a week for a half-hour," she said.

The reason some meetings are so short, board members said, is because most of their recent cases have dealt with requests for variances rather than special exceptions.

Homeowners seek zoning variances when they want to alter lot tTC sizes or setback requirements to build things like sheds, decks or patios. Most variance cases are decided in a half-hour or less.

Property owners seek zoning exceptions when they want to build in a special way, such as constructing a church or gas station. Special exception appeals, especially those involving businesses, are often contested and require a night or more of hearings. Because of a slowdown in the economy, the board has been receiving fewer special exception requests than in recent years.

The Department of Planning and Zoning would like to handle all variance appeals administratively. It has filed a petition with the zoning board, which, if approved, would do exactly that. The department already deals administratively with requests for variances of 10 percent or less.

Appeals board members think they should continue to handle more complicated variance cases -- those involving 20 percent or more. Ms. Pendergrass suggested that the zoning department deal administratively with owner-occupant requests for variances of 20 percent or less, and that the board of appeals hear requests for variances of more than 20 percent.

The council also wants the board to expedite its hearing process regardless of whether it continues to hear variance appeals. It now takes about four months from the time an appeal is filed until a decision is issued. It takes about three months for the board to schedule a hearing and about a month to hear and decide the case.

That time could be cut down to one month if planning board review of appeals were eliminated, said George L. Layman, appeals board vice-chairman. He told the council that if the planning board were removed from the process, a petition filed by the first of the month could be heard on the last Thursday of the month.

"We're caught up" on appeals cases, but cannot schedule any new ones less than 10 weeks in advance because "we can't make a decision without the planning board," said appeals board member James A. Caldwell.

"It's very rare that the planning board does not agree with the [planning and zoning] staff report," said appeals board member Margaret Rutter. "And its very rare that we don't agree as well," Mr. Caldwell said.

Despite its reservations, the council approved the board's $117,000 budget proposal and forwarded it to the county executive for inclusion in the fiscal 1994 operating budget.

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