Create Separate Zoning Board

May 03, 1994

Something has to be done to end the scandalous situation that allows the Howard County Council to sit also as the local zoning board.

The sharing of these roles by one governing body might not have been so troublesome in the slower-paced Howard of the 1950s and early '60s. However, it increasingly invites conflicts of interest as the jurisdiction continues to experience the rapid development set in motion three decades ago.

In recent General Assembly sessions, the Howard delegation has attempted to take a small step toward righting this situation. Local lawmakers have introduced a bill that would require a landowner seeking a zoning change to disclose whether he or she has contributed $500 or more during the previous four years to a council member's political campaign fund.

The measure was finally passed last month and needs only the governor's signature before it can become a county law.

After initially agreeing with the spirit of the bill, we later expressed some concern that it did not go far enough. The bill singles out County Council members, without demanding disclosure of developer contributions to the county executive, state senators and delegates and other Howard officials.

Moreover, the measure says nothing about political gifts made by other professionals with a stake in the development process, such as architects.

Two similar ethics bills approved during the past few years by the Prince George's County legislative delegation were subsequently found to be unconstitutional -- which suggests the Howard bill could meet a similar fate.

Clearly the simplest and most effective way of dealing with this problem is to make the Howard County Council and the zoning board two distinct panels.

It has long been obvious that Howard County is large enough to justify a separate zoning board. This would help erase a perception of scheming between development interests and elected county officials.

Howard County reformers would do better to work toward a permanent split of the zoning board and the County Council, rather than try to affect change through well-meaning yet flawed legislation.

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