Rehrmann, Pierno at odds again Executive opposes fast-track bill

October 17, 1993|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Harford County Council member Theresa M. Pierno and County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann are butting heads again. But this time, Mrs. Pierno seems to have struck a nerve.

Mrs. Pierno, a Democratic activist elected to the District C seat on a promise to increase citizen involvement in the development process, has proposed legislation that Mrs. Rehrmann says will cripple the county's most cherished marketing tool: its "fast-track" permit process.

The bill, co-sponsored by council member Susan B. Heselton, R-District A, seeks to increase public notice of development proposals and promote more input through written comments and public meetings. The measure is to be introduced Tuesday.

Rehrmann officials plan to fight the bill vigorously, saying it will put leg irons on companies that demand deadlines for receiving local building permits and even promote court battles that could tie up the development process indefinitely.

Just creating a perception that there are roadblocks to development means companies "don't even come and talk," said George F. Harrison, a Rehrmann spokesman.

The Rehrmann administration credits the fast track with enabling it to pull off all of its big industrial and commercial development coups in the last several years: Clorox, Frito-Lay, MCI, The Gap and others. It says that it is Harford's most effective way of attracting jobs and thus balancing the explosive and revenue-draining residential growth with more lucrative commercial and industrial growth.

When Mrs. Rehrmann took office in December 1990, Harford's tax base was 80 percent residential. As of July 1, 1992, it was 83 percent residential, according to figures compiled by the Rehrmann administration. More recent figures were not available.

Administration officials, however, say the worsening of the ratio is not all that bad considering the recession and other factors, such as the high number of housing developments approved during the boom years of the 1980s.

"We consider it successful if we hold our own," Mr. Harrison said.

The fast track, which has received much favorable media coverage, is described by its supporters as the "ace up the county's sleeve," or the "sizzle on its steak."

Borrowing from Pepsi's ad campaign, James D. Fielder, the county's economic development director, calls fast track Harford's "uh-huh."

Other metropolitan counties profess to be jealous of the fast track and Harford's recent successes. Some, such as Baltimore County, say they've tried something similar and failed.

But Mrs. Pierno says that what she has learned -- and what the administration acknowledges -- is that there are no written guidelines, no established criteria for determining which companies get "fast-tracked" and which don't.

The decision is made by Mrs. Rehrmann, at the recommendation of Mr. Fielder. The goal is to attract high-quality companies that are environmentally responsible, that pay their employees well and that treat their employees well, Mr. Fielder said.

In essence, Mr. Fielder said, "it is a 'star burst' approach to reviewing plans and permits as opposed to a sequential approach." Translation: Having all pertinent government agencies review permit applications at once, rather than one after the other -- and tracking the process like a hawk. Thus, he said, the time required to get permits is cut from months to weeks.

Rehrmann officials insist that no laws or regulations are sidestepped. "Fast track does not mean that it's a bulldozer moving through the woods," Mr. Fielder said.

But not everyone agrees. A former county employee familiar with fast track said raising questions about a fast-track project "is not encouraged at all. . . . The level of scrutiny is much lower on a fast-track project."

The former employee, who asked not to be identified, said: "There's an awful lot of pressure. . . . If there's a question about something and it's a fast-track project, you would not ask it, but you would ask it on another project."

Mrs. Pierno said, "My fear in this whole thing is simply how subjective this is. You have no objective review of whether [a project] is worthy of fast track."

In addition, she says, fast track, by its subjectiveness, also "opens the door for possible corruption."

Mr. Harrison, the Rehrmann spokesman, said, "I'm distressed if she is attempting to paint the county executive as potentially corruptible."

Last week, Mrs. Pierno recommended to the county Economic Development Advisory Board that a committee establish fast-track criteria.

She said companies should be allowed in the fast-track program based on, among other things, how much they would expand the tax base, how much land or water they would use, the number of jobs they would create and the wages that would be generated.

But Mr. Fielder and other Rehrmann officials complain that Mrs. Pierno is trying to regulate what is simply an aggressive, "pro-business attitude."

Every time a layer of government regulation is added, Mr. Fielder said of Mrs. Pierno's community input bill, it increases the time it takes for a company to get through the permit process.

Mrs. Pierno says that her bill would not add more time. She said that she recently added some exemptions to the process for fast-track projects.

Rehrmann officials also argue that they have been developing a broad-based approach to increase community input for more than 1 1/2 years -- and that Mrs. Pierno defected from that process.

Mrs. Pierno countered that the Rehrmann committee was stacked with development interests and was getting nowhere.

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