Curtailment of variances on shoreline to be sought

November 04, 1994|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Waterfront property owners would be able to build additions to their houses and sheds in their yards cheaper and faster under rules Anne Arundel County officials will propose to the state Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Commission.

The new rules would allow property owners to build the additions without going through the process of getting a zoning variance, as long as the new construction is no closer to the water than existing structures.

However, they would apply only to developed property that lies within the 100-foot buffer established under the state's critical areas law, said Joseph Elbrich, the county's environmental administrator.

When Anne Arundel County came under heavy criticism several years ago for not requiring construction variances in many critical area cases, local officials began requiring variances for everything. The buffer-exemption program would define criteria for exemptions while the county's initial program did not.

Regina Esslinger, a natural resources planner for the commission, said the new rules would take into consideration lots that were "developed prior to the critical area law that may not meet those standards. It recognizes the lot is already constrained," she said.

But environmental advocates were leery of the proposal.

Jane Sinclair, zoning chairwoman of the Severn River Association, worried that eliminating the variance hearing would keep the public out of the process.

When a property owner applies for a variance, nearby property owners are notified, and others can learn about the plans by checking the agenda of the county's administrative hearing officer and attend the hearing.

But permit applications are posted on the property while the county reviews them and are granted without a hearing unless someone complains.

"Once they do it as an administrative decision, they cut out a lot of the public input," Ms. Sinclair complained. "They cut the SRA and other people and associations."

Ms. Esslinger conceded that the commission would "have less of an idea what is going on in the older communities" under the county's proposed rules.

But the county could adopt a provision that advertises permits for buffer exempt sites, she added.

Under the current rules, property owners who wish to build within the buffer must pay a minimum $125 filing fee to request a variance, then pay for environmental and engineering studies to include with the request. If all goes without a hitch, a property owner can have a variance in three months. But the process could take years if the variance is contested.

Under the new rules, the property owner could skip the process and go straight to the building and grading permits that all construction needs, saving at least three months and the fees.

By the end of this year, an estimated 300 property owners will have sought buffer variances, said Kevin Dooley, zoning administrator.

Many jurisdictions -- Cecil, Dorchester and Prince George's counties among them -- already have buffer exemption programs. Baltimore County is developing one. Anne Arundel County is nearly finished mapping its approximately 431 miles of shoreline to show which lots are developed and should be buffer-exempt, Mr. Elbrich said. The County Council must vote on what the commission approves and send any changes it makes back to the commission for approval.

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