How Beautiful It All Looks in the Fall

COMMENT

September 25, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

Political fence mending and image building are time-honored construction projects as elections roll around.

Harford County Council members swiftly lined up this month to assure voters that the public will be amply notified in case someone seeks a written interpretation of zoning laws from the county. Not a proposed change or a special exception, but merely an interpretation from the chief zoning administrator, who is Planning Director William Carroll.

This Interpretation Notification measure, which could entangle the zoning office in a series of interpretations of "interpretations" if followed to the letter, requires the county to send notice to neighbors and post a sign at the affected property within 14 days of the request.

It sounds like the Community Input law, which addressed proposed developments and changes in zoning. The proposed mailings to neighbors and posting of property seemed an egregious imposition on the time and resources of the county and the development community; at least county officials said so at the time, which was distant from this November's election. It took a lot of compromise and rewriting to reach an agreement on that law.

But this quickly passed piece of zoning interpretation legislation, this DEW line for the anti-growth constituency that could even be triggered by a request from a non-owner of any property, is more than an effort to inform the public.

In fact, this measure, which had the approval of County $l Executive Eileen Rehrmann's administration, is a legislative Band-aid on a long festering wound in the body politic of greater Fallston, an ex post facto remedy that provides that aggrieved with no remedy, no consolation for their specific injury.

It's a gesture by a council in its sunset days that incumbents hope will ingratiate them with voters in November, a typical "good government" bill that probably won't make a lot of difference in the future, except to invite litigation.

The bill's origin lies in one of the stickiest brier patches into which Joanne Parrott ever wandered during her eight years on the County Council: the battle over turning Fallston farmland into a home for abused and neglected youths.

Mrs. Parrott, who was elected from that district, refused to take a stand on the issue of a zoning exception to build the home, when the matter came two years ago to the County Council sitting as the Board of Zoning Appeals. The council voted to uphold the special exception, granted by a hearing officer, giving the project the go-ahead and loosening restrictions on its intended use.

Taking a walk on the hottest local issue of her district has earned the Republican candidate for County Council president a lot of grief.

Her weak excuse, that she was too close to the issue and that there was too much emotion attached for her to take a stand, infuriated most of the neighbors around the 26-acre acre plot designated by the United Methodist Church as a place for the statewide youth home.

Is this what we elect a council representative for? they asked. Several community leaders pledged to sabotage Mrs. Parrott's political future. She was mightily booed at a public meeting a year ago when proposing interpretation review.

Switch to the County Council hearing on the bill this month. Fallston community activists meekly supported the Parrott bill, and said it might help others in Harford County to avoid the surprise of a stealth project in their neighborhood.

If citizens know that a landowner is thinking about a planned use of the property, whether it requires a zoning exception or not, they can mobilize early to challenge any zoning office interpretation within the legal 20-day deadline.

But being forewarned would not necessarily have changed the fate of the youth home project, which has been contested at every level of local administration and the courts. Yes, the interpretation of what constituted a "group home" could have been appealed earlier, had this law been in effect. But the County Council's ultimate decision approving the zoning exception shows that it would have supported the zoning office's original interpretation of the law.

After three years, the opponents finally ran out of options to challenge the $6 million group home.

Since the Rehrmann administration and the avid growth-control members of the council were both parties to approving zoning for the Methodist home, they also saw fence mending value in backing the Parrott bill.

But it seems a bit strange that the administration that objected to the expense and effort of the community notification bill earlier this year should find this measure so easy to swallow whole.

Mr. Carroll, who OK'd the interpretation of a 10-building complex as a group home (singular), said he only gets a dozen written requests for zoning interpretations each year. He said he will also take a strict view of what is an interpretation and what is mere reiteration of the code. That view is certainly subject to challenges.

Citizens certainly have a right to know early on when development is planned that can affect their property and which may require a special zoning exception. We've supported strong notification provisions of the community input law.

But we wonder whether this interpretations law will actually perform its intended purpose, or whether it simply provides fTC empty credits for politicians eager to pad their campaign resumes for November.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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