Towns' fight with county over growth should go on


January 07, 1996|By Brian Sullam

DON'T BE surprised if the mayors of Carroll's eight incorporated towns and the county's three commissioners spend the remainder of this year engaged in protracted battles over development approvals.

County commissioners and town mayors and councils have always had a certain amount of strain in their relationships, but this board of commissioners -- W. Benjamin Brown, Donald I. Dell and Richard T. Yates -- seems to have aggravated town governments more than any other in recent memory.

Sometimes, little things have generated the friction. Sykesville recently received a bill for $15,000 for paving on Raincliffe Road that happens to fall within the boundaries of the town. It's a case of the county's asking Sykesville residents to pay twice -- once through their county taxes and again through their municipal levy -- for a road that benefits all countians.

On other occasions, fundamental questions of governance and allocation of responsibility are at the root of the conflict.

'Controlled growth' plan

The rocky relationship between the county commissioners and elected municipal officials will come into sharp focus later this year when the commissioners unveil their "controlled growth" plan that calls for channeling development to Carroll's towns. For this initiative to work, the commissioners and town officials have to work together.

One of the most vivid examples of confusion over governance involved the commissioners' refusal earlier this year to enforce the county's livability code, which sets health and safety standards for residential rental property. The commissioners insisted for months that they had no responsibility for enforcing the ordinance. This refusal of the county's top elected officials to enforce a valid law left many mayors with a queasy feeling.

Without the county's enforcement, landlords in their towns could rent decrepit properties and bring down property values and the town governments would be powerless to stop the abuses. Only after political pressure became intense did the commissioners agree to enforce the ordinance.

The commissioners further aggravated the towns' anxieties by making an unprecedented decision, issuing a grading permit for a condominium development in Hampstead without obtaining the town's approval, which the clear language of the ordinance required.

It was the equivalent of the county's telling the towns that they don't have any power over their own affairs. The commissioners' unilateral action also clashed with decades of tradition and practice.

For years, Carroll's towns have routinely relinquished control over certain licensing and permitting functions to the county. Although state law gives the towns the right to enact and enforce a wide range of laws, Carroll's small municipalities didn't want to assume the cost and responsibility of enforcement.

For example, none of the towns wanted to maintain a costly development review department that would issue everything from grading to occupancy permits. Instead, the county assumed the function. But the towns retain a certain amount of oversight in the development process, as they should.

Even though Carroll's grading ordinance bestows much of the approval power on the county, towns don't abdicate their right to review and approve grading within their boundaries. Towns also have rights to control the scope and pace of development.

The current commissioners believe their positions best represent the will of the majority of Carroll's citizens. Thus, the commissioners expect that they should get their way, and they get quite upset when town governments keep them from accomplishing their goals.

Unchecked power

At the heart of this dispute between the county and the towns is a fundamental element of American government -- no level of government is granted unchecked power.

The Founding Fathers deliberately created this complex system of government to prevent the kind of tyranny they experienced from the Crown of England. They fashioned a government that prevented a small group from taking control and precipitously changing policy. The same overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities that exist in the federal system have been replicated on the state and local levels.

As a result, fundamental realignments of government and policy don't happen overnight. In addition, government officials on any level can't act unilaterally. They must make concessions, reach understandings and honor commitments to other branches of government and to other levels of government. Developing the agreement among all these parties to take action takes a long time and requires persistence.

Carroll's town governments are here to stay. They have certain inherent rights and responsibilities that have to be honored. Relations between the towns and county will improve once the commissioners decide they must work with -- rather than against -- the towns.

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

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