Decision on Zoning a Towering Shame

COMMENT

January 15, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

Considering the Carroll County Board of Zoning Appeals' series of decisions on the controversial radio tower in Sykesville, it's understandable why people are growing so cynical about government and public officials.

By upholding the validity of the building permit for West Shore Communication's 200-foot cellular telephone tower, the zoning appeals board has thumbed its nose not only at Sykesville residents, the town government and the county commissioners, but also at rational land use policy.

The job of the three-member board is to consider requests for zoning, variances and conditional use permits. It is also supposed to hear appeals of zoning violations. It sits as a quasi-judicial body, which means the group is supposed to decide cases based on the evidence presented and not according to political considerations.

It has taken a year for the board to decide this case. At every turn, it blatantly ignored the evidence it was presented. As a result, its final ruling favored the narrow interest of a company seeking special dispensation to erect a tower and disregarded the general public interest.

Most of the time, the public pays little heed to zoning appeals verdicts because many are rulings on technical points of the zoning code. The only interested parties are lawyers, planners and the people asking for the rulings.

This case was not typical. Dozens of people testified at public hearings that were observed by scores of South Carroll residents.

After the latest turn in this case, in which the board overturned a county stop-work order on the tower, most of these citizens come away with the impression that the board has little interest in preserving and enforcing Carroll's master plan.

In retrospect, it appears that the board decided the case on the grounds that West Shore Communications had already invested considerable sums on feasibility studies, engineering plans, property surveys, construction drawings and legal fees.

There is, in fact, no doubt that West Shore Communications, which is in the business of erecting towers and then leasing them to cellular companies, badly wanted this site. As far as the company was concerned, there was no alternative. Its consultants spent considerable effort debunking suggestions of other, more appropriate locations.

In order to use this half-acre parcel for its 200-foot-high tower, West Shore needed a conditional use permit because the land was located in a conservation zone.

Although the law allows communications towers to be built in conservation zones, that does not mean that every site located in a conservation zone should have a tower. The purpose of creating a special use permit process is to allow the board the opportunity to judge whether a proposed site is appropriate.

There are legitimate questions about the propriety of building West Shore Communications' tower on this particular parcel.

Not only is the land zoned conservation, it is located in the watershed of the Piney Run Reservoir. Besides these important environmental considerations, the tower would be built very close to existing residences.

One aim of zoning is to control the type, size and configuration of buildings on property.

In cities such as Houston, where there is no zoning, people can pretty much do what they want with their property. The result is often irrational and haphazard patterns of land use with gas stations on every corner and fast food stores in the middle of residential neighborhoods.

Many other jurisdictions, including Carroll, opt for more rational and predictable land use. If a person purchases property next to an industrial-zoned parcel, he can expect that the neighboring land owner might erect an industrial building. If a person buys property near conservation-zoned land, he does not expect to have the equivalent of a 20-story building constructed within 100 yards of his home.

Last January, when the board heard testimony on West Shore's request, witnesses pointed out that placing a radio tower in a conservation zone was an inappropriate use of this land and would set an unfortunate precedent. Neighbors also pointed out that the steel tower would be an intrusion into their wooded enclave. None of these arguments persuaded the appeals board, which approved the application. Rather, the board treated the protests as expressions of simplistic NIMBYism.

The appeals panel seems to be taking the approach that the tower has to be in somebody's back yard; it might as well be in these folks'. There is no denying that the Hollenberry Road residents don't want the tower in their back yards, but their arguments are also on solid footing.

The same cannot be said for West Shore's contention that it has a "vested" right to build the tower after it began construction. The company's hasty attempt to pour a foundation after receiving its building permit last fall was but a transparent effort to demonstrate that the project was fully under way.

It is certainly ironic that the appeals board's repeal of the stop-work order doesn't take effect until West Shore has its written order. Why wasn't the same procedure followed when the original building permit was issued last Oct. 28?

Maybe because the public interest was never on the county Board of Zoning Appeals' agenda.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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