Zoning: How Quickly They Forget

June 14, 1995

All of the many changes to the Howard County charter that the County Council began considering this week involve fairly innocuous items such as procedural shifts and clarifications. Yet it is what's not being discussed that is most startling.

Of the 34 proposed changes being reviewed by the council, only one deals in any way with the issue of growth or zoning in the county. When the council met to discuss which proposals it might put on the next ballot, zoning was never mentioned. That, of course, was the topic of the last election, when there was considerable discussion about the merits of the county's current system of establishing zoning policy.

We have long recommended that the county put an end to its eyebrow-raising custom of council members also sitting as the zoning board. That set-up should be replaced with an appointed zoning review panel. Indeed, there were representatives who suggested last fall that the county's upcoming charter review afforded the perfect opportunity to consider such a shift.

That was then, however, and this is now. No such changes to the zoning board are being recommended. Only a fairly benign suggestion from County Executive Charles I. Ecker that the charter review comission take a look at the issue of "floating zones" and how they are being handled since voters approved a zoning referendum last fall.

You remember the zoning referendum, don't you? So-called "Question B" was supposed to be the answer to what ails burgeoning Howard County. It was supposed to make elected officials more honest by forcing them to pass zoning changes by bill, which would, in turn, make their decisions subject to referendum. Flawed Question B did no such thing. Once the details were worked out, some changes were made subject to a council bill, but the more controversial ones were left for the zoning board to decide.

The best way to scrub as much politics as possible out of the zoning process is to have those decisions made by an independent, appointed body. It is the very nature of politics that would see this issue plummet from Topic A last fall to a non-starter with the powers that be seven months later. If the Howard County Council wants its charter review to bear real fruit, it will get serious and let voters decide what kind of zoning board they want.

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