Twilight Zoning: We Need a Change


January 15, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

In its brief first month, this latest incarnation of the Harford County Council has amply demonstrated why it should not be sitting as the county's Zoning Board of Appeals.

Voters and taxpayers are short-changed on both ends by council members who serve in this dual role. Not because these officials may vote the "wrong" way on any specific question. But because nTC there is a legal escape hatch permitting them to avoid voting and discussion on these important public issues.

As in other counties that have grown up faster than their original state charters envisioned, Harford legally designates the County Council as its zoning appeals board, deciding appeals of rulings made by county zoning hearing examiners. The creation of another panel to administer that quasi-judicial role was seen as unnecessary. That was then. This is now.

As development has intensified in Harford, as growth management rules have become more complex, as the economic stakes in zoning decisions have escalated, the council's role as zoning appeals board has grown more uncomfortable and more inimical to its fundamental purpose of debating and representing the concerns of its constituents.

Council members are abdicating their responsibilities to listen to the voices of the public, on the pretext that such statements might unduly influence their judgment should certain matters ever come before the zoning appeals board.

And if these officials should dare to listen to the voices of the community, as any decent elected representative should be obliged to do, they may then righteously shirk their responsibility to make decisions as appeals board members.

The issue was joined at the initial session of the council last month when Council President Joanne Parrott quickly moved to cut off comment by a citizen who wanted to speak against a businessman's proposal to build an auto racetrack near Havre de Grace.

Only after consultation with other council members and staff did Mrs. Parrott allow the woman to continue, admonishing her to avoid specifics of the controversial issue that has for months received comprehensive attention and discussion everywhere in Harford except the sacrosanct chambers of the County Council.

The reason for such presidential prudence, Mrs. Parrott made clear, was that the motor sports complex may come before the Council Council as a zoning issue in the future.

Never mind that no zoning request has even been filed with anyone at this point. And heaven forbid that she or any of her colleagues might actually read a newspaper or show up at community meetings where the prickly question has been heatedly discussed. Or that they might deign to take a constituent phone call about the matter.

The new council president, it will be recalled, declared her view ,, of the sanctity of the council's zoning appeals role back in 1992.

She abstained in a crucial vote by the council (acting as appeals board) to allow a special exception for building an abused-youth foster-care complex on farmland in Fallston, the area from which she was elected. Mrs. Parrott explained that she had been so heavily lobbied on the issue outside the council chambers that she could not make an impartial decision. The charter required her abstention, she insisted.

Most people, however, saw the evasion as dropping a political hot potato. It's not as if she had been the lawyer for one of the

parties, or had a direct economic interest in the outcome, or some other justifiable reason for taking a walk on the issue.

And when the Fallston youth-complex issue again came before the County Council this month on a new zoning appeal, Mrs. Parrott again excused herself.

This is not to say that Mrs. Parrott is the only one who has ever exercised this option. But she has done so, twice, in a high-profile local development issue. More importantly, as council president she appears to be setting a tone that encourages other council members to duck tough public policy decisions.

Her alacrity in curbing public comment on the proposed race track sends a disturbing message that open debate by the council of other potential zoning questions may be suppressed by her singular charter interpretations.

The soundest solution would be to establish a separate independent zoning board of appeals, although that would take time. And the council would still have ultimate power to enact a special ordinance to overturn any appeals panel verdict.

Howard County is considering the same problem. Its council is resisting that change while grappling with measures to limit conflicts of interest by council members. In the end, however, a separate board appears the only logical answer.

The same is true for Harford, and the sooner the better, given the example of current council leadership. In the meantime, council members would do well to freely encourage and respond to public comment without fear of future zoning appeals conflict. That is why they were elected, not to serve as zoning judges insulated from the community.

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

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