Compassion vs. the letter of the law Critical Area waiver: Anne Arundel zoning officer was right to bend on shoreline rule.

January 08, 1996

ROBERT C. WILCOX, Anne Arundel's zoning hearing officer, had to decide between compassion and the letter of the law last week. Wisely, he chose the former, allowing a Round Bay family to make their home accessible to their disabled 10-year-old even though it violates the Critical Area Law, that labyrinthine system of regulations designed to protect the county's shoreline. Government has to do what's best for people, he said. And in this case, the good achieved by breaking the rules outweighs the benefit of enforcing them.

Yes, the Critical Area Law needs to be upheld more strictly than it has been since its 1988 passage. Violations have been too easily overlooked, and waivers for homeowners who want to build waterfront decks and family rooms too easily granted. Individually, these violations and exceptions seem harmless; collectively, they thwart ecological preservation.

But the government errs twice if, to compensate for unjustifiable breaches of the law, it denies legitimate requests for exceptions. John and Lisa McGovern's situation is unique. They have been carrying their daughter, who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound, from one floor to another, and wanted to build an addition, including an elevator, a room for a live-in aide and an in-ground pool. The addition would take up more lot space and sit closer to the water than the Critical Area Law allows, hence the need for the waiver.

Mr. Wilcox bent the law no more than he felt necessary in order to grant the McGoverns relief. He approved only those items to be used exclusively for the child's care -- the room and the elevator -- but denied the pool, a recreational amenity despite the family's intentions to use it for therapy.

It is a measure of the fairness of his decision that the county Department of Planning and Code Enforcement, which initially opposed the waiver, does not plan to appeal. Also worth noting )) is the silence of the Severn River Association. Had the association viewed the McGoverns' request as an egregious or unnecessary violation, you can be sure it would have registered disapproval. Instead, it tacitly acknowledged that an elevator for a disabled child deserves to be treated differently from a waterfront deck.

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