Residents get a break in the variance process County planners to gain authority

April 15, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

The Howard County Zoning Board made it easier last night for property owners to obtain variances by giving county planners wider authority to grant them.

But the Zoning Board did not give planners as much authority as they had sought.

At last night's work session, the County Council, sitting as the Zoning Board, gave tentative approval to an amended set of changes to zoning regulations.

The 4-0 vote is nonbinding because regulations must be drafted and signed by board members to become official.

The board's action last night is an indication of its position on the proposals.

Joseph W. Rutter, county planning and zoning director, said the amended proposals satisfied his department and members of the Board of Appeals, who had been at odds over the variance issue.

In its original petition for comprehensive rezoning of the eastern county, the planning department argued that if it had power to grant all variances, the review process and related fees would be cut nearly in half because homeowners would not have to present their cases to two boards.

Currently, homeowners take their cases to the Planning Board, which issues a recommendation, then to the Board of Appeals, which grants or denies the variance petition.

Variances allow property owners to exceed the size and distance 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 regulations allowed.

Planners estimate that about 90 percent of variance requests are from ordinary homeowners and not developers likely to face opposition to their requests.

The Board of Appeals opposed giving complete authority to grant variances to a department directed by a political appointee of the county executive.

Zoning Board Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat who represents eastern Columbia, quoted from the testimony of the Board of Appeals: " 'Too much power in the hands of bureaucrats.' I agree with them."

The regulations voted into the final draft of new zoning regulations give county planners the authority to grant variances of up to 20 percent. They now have the authority to grant "administrative variances" of up to 10 percent.

For example, the change would give the department the power to allow a property owner to build an extra room that is 20 feet from a neighboring property line when the setback regulations require it to be 25 feet from the line.

If a neighbor opposes the variance and asks to appeal the department's decision, the Board of Appeals would consider the entire case itself, just as it does now.

"I think it makes sense," board member Charles C. Feaga, a Republican who represents western Howard County, said of the amended proposals.

Board member Paul Farragut, a Democrat who represents western Columbia, agreed.

Board member Darrel Drown, a Republican who represents Ellicott City, said he was concerned that the process "not have these people run through a ringer. It becomes so cumbersome and expensive for people."

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