Zoning bureaucracy puzzles homeowner Paperwork request became an ordeal

November 19, 1993|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff Writer

Darlene Neel's house has been sitting on a quiet street in Savage since 1917, three decades before zoning existed in Howard County.

So why, she asks, is zoning getting in the way of her selling her house?

Ms. Neel's paperwork nightmare began with a prospective buyer, who in August asked for proof that the house's two apartments could be rented legally.

Although Ms. Neel has had a renter's permit for several years, the buyer also wanted documentation to show the two-apartment house on Washington Street did not violate zoning regulations.

Technically, the half-acre residential zoning designation that applied at that time prohibited two-apartment houses without a zoning exception.

But because the regulations were adopted in 1971 -- 24 years after the house was split into two apartments -- the property was exempt from those regulations.

Even so, in order to satisfy the buyer, Ms. Neel had to pay $265 in fees to take her case before the county Department of Planning and Zoning, the Planning Board and, finally, the Board of Appeals. She also had to pay $108 for legal advertising.

"I could not believe I had to go through all of this. And we're talking 19 copies of all the documents I had to make," Ms. Neel said.

When she went to the Planning Board on Nov. 10, Ms. Neel had all of her backup documentation ready, including county tax records showing the house had two apartments in 1971.

To her dismay, she was told that her old residential zoning status had changed since Sept. 20, when she filed the petition to have the two-apartment unit confirmed as a "non-conforming use."

The new commercial zoning designation, requested by owners of the nearby Savage Mill, does not permit any residential properties that are not also part of a business -- a residence above the owner's store, for example.

But neither Ms. Neel's house nor those of her four neighbors were supposed to have been included in that zoning change, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning and zoning director.

He attributed the mistake to a drafting error that occurred when county zoning maps were transferred to the department's new computer system.

And only the Zoning Board can correct that mistake, a process that will have to wait until the end of next year, after a new Zoning Board is seated.

"Lord knows when I would have found out about the zoning if I hadn't gone to that meeting," Ms. Neel said.

Meanwhile, the prospective buyer who had asked Ms. Neel for the documentation in the first place decided not to buy the property -- for reasons unrelated to the zoning complications.

l But another prospective buyer who attended the Planning Board meeting on Nov. 10 expressed doubts about buying the house, after learning the newly zoned commercial area could be used for anything from a Wal-Mart to a lumber yard.

The Board of Appeals, which is empowered to give Ms. Neel the documentation she wants, is scheduled to hear the case on Dec. 14.

Planning Board members, although powerless to help, are sympathetic to Ms. Neel's frustrations.

"Members of the Planning Board wished there were an administrative process to deal with a straightforward case like this," said board member Joan Lancos yesterday.

"The county Planning Board and Board of Appeals and the property owner should not have to go through this hassle."

To help ease the pain, the board has recommended that Ms. Neel's $250 petition fee be refunded, along with the $15 fee for a mandatory zoning notice on her front lawn.

Ms. Neel is pleased to receive that relief.

"I just really don't feel that I should have had to pay all that money when I really didn't do anything," she said.

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