Builder's nomination questioned

March 09, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

The nomination of a Savage builder for a seat on the county's most powerful citizen land-use board has a prominent growth-control activist questioning whether people with a financial stake in land use should be making such decisions.

Jerry L. Rushing, 39, was recommended for appointment to the county Board of Appeals by Republican County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, whose District 3 includes Savage. The council resolution to appoint Mr. Rushing was introduced Monday.

Mr. Rushing, who owns Patuxent Builders Inc., a small home-building and remodeling contractor, and Patuxent Home Inspections Inc., is a lifelong Savage resident. Mr. Schrader says that makes the builder especially qualified for the board because of his knowledge and concern for the area along with his professional expertise.

But news of Mr. Rushing's nomination was received skeptically by growth-control activist John W. Taylor, who for years has questioned what he believes is a land-use regulatory structure fraught with conflicts of interest.

"Is there a conflict of interest here? The council has to look at that very closely before they make a decision on this man," said the Highland Democrat, who was defeated in his bid for a County Council seat in November. "He certainly seems to have more of a business interest in Board of Appeals decisions than the average citizen."

Mr. Schrader, however, said that Mr. Rushing is a "pillar of the community" and that he objects to applying a development connections "litmus test" to appointees.

The council is scheduled to hear testimony on Mr. Rushing's nomination at its monthly public hearing at 7:30 p.m. March 20 and to vote on the appointment April 3.

Despite its name, the Board of Appeals is not merely an appeals panel. It is the body that decides all exceptions to land use regulations under county zoning rules, as well as variances from restrictions on the height and placement of buildings. A small part of its schedule is devoted to appeals of decisions made by other county boards and administration departments.

The panel also is the only permanent county board appointed by the County Council. Members of other boards, such as the Planning Board, are appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the council.

The board's members typically are lay citizens, rather than those with some specialized knowledge of planning and zoning issues.

Mr. Rushing, who would be the first appeals board appointment by the new, Republican-dominated County Council, would fill a seat held by Wayman Scott, who has served the maximum of two five-year terms.

Besides being a builder, Mr. Rushing also is active in the Bethel Assembly of God in Savage, which has applied for special exceptions and changes to special exceptions six times since 1984. From 1989 to 1992 Mr. Rushing was one of the church's trustees.

Mr. Rushing said that he would not vote on any case in which he believed his interests were in conflict with those of the county.

In another appeals case, Mr. Rushing was listed as the builder for a Savage resident who violated county zoning regulations in the the construction of a four-car garage with a second story. Mr. Rushing said yesterday that although he was listed as the builder in the 1992 appeals board case involving the zoning violation by his friend, Edward A. Cezar of Savage, he did no construction work on the project.

"My initial interest was that I simply applied for the original building permit for him that was rejected. That was the extent of my involvement in the case," Mr. Rushing said. "Later, he went ahead and built a bigger garage. . . . I didn't build it, I didn't work on it."

Mr. Rushing added, "I have not directly profited or been involved in any Board of Appeals cases." While he remembered testifying in "a couple of cases," he said, "I've never had a case before the board; I've never had a job before the board."

Mr. Schrader said that Mr. Rushing's line of work shouldn't disqualify him from the position.

"I'd say that would be patently unfair," he said, comparing it to believing "you wouldn't put a plumber on the plumbing board. You want people on the board with a certain amount of expertise."

Mr. Schrader added that Mr. Rushing, as a lifelong resident, would "probably be more objective than folks that have only been here for 10 or 20 years."

Mr. Taylor however, said that county officials need to rethink their attitude about giving builders, developers or major landowners power over land-use decisions.

"I always think back to the example that you wouldn't put a Baltimore Gas and Electric executive on a public utility commission, and this looks like it's very close to that instance," Mr. Taylor said. "That seems to be an analogy that everyone can agree on, and yet very similar circumstances seem to slip by in Howard County all the time."

Mr. Schrader disagreed, saying, "I would not compare Jerry Rushing to the CEO of Ryland, or a major developer in the county, so I think that's disingenuous. . . .

"I am about championing the little guy, and I think that when we get to the point where we're putting litmus tests to the little guy, then I think we're in the extreme. I'm not going to be intimidated by that kind of extremism, period."

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