Business site plan review urged Planners to determine commercial, industrial development criteria

Panel on slow-growth path

Commission member says process called 'fast track' is a disaster

September 15, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The county Planning and Zoning Commission, which has become noted for its spats as much as for its planning in the past year, may be in for another fight.

While recent quarrels have centered on residential development, the storm on the horizon concerns oversight of industrial and commercial development. Commission member Grant S. Dannelly says he wants the planning panel to begin reviewing industrial and commercial site plans, just as it now does with residential projects. "The citizenry needs to know what's coming," he said.

Commission members agreed this month to begin discussing criteria for determining what kinds of commercial and industrial site plans they want to review. Dannelly advocates that all be reviewed.

By tradition, the commission has reviewed site plans for new public facilities, site plans in which technical standards have been ignored and, since January, site plans in areas where there is a problem with adequate public facilities.

But Dannelly's call for "exploration" sends shivers through the development community. Many residential developers believe a new majority on the planning panel is committed to halting residential development. And with slow-growth members firmly in control, industrial and commercial developers worry that they might face a similar problem.

"No business wants to go where it's not wanted," said developer Richard L. Hull, president of Carroll Land Services Inc. and founder of Citizens for Responsible Growth. And none wants to wait the two years it takes to get through the development review process to find out they are not wanted, he said.

More scrutiny for commercial projects might jeopardize the county's goal of increasing its commercial tax base by attracting new business or helping old ones expand, Hull said.

"If [members of the planning commission] attempt to micromanage every one of these [site] plans, it will only cause additional hardship on the tax base," he said.

County officials acknowledge that residential development must be balanced by commercial development to maintain a low, stable property-tax rate. They view business as a net gain, because for the most part, businesses pay more in taxes than they use in services.

Competition among local governments to recruit industry is fierce, and financial incentives, supportive infrastructure and ease of working with government are the chief lures.

In recent years, Carroll has based its pitch to businesses interested in locating in the county or expanding existing operations on smooth governmental relations, offering a quick review of their plans that provided one-stop shopping in the county development review office without having to submit plans to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The process, called "fast track," seemed to be working smoothly until this spring when South Carroll residents complained to Dannelly and Joseph H. Mettle, the planning commission's vice chairman, about a drive-in ice cream parlor that had been put on fast track. They wanted to know why.

When fast track was first proposed in 1992, companies needed to meet certain criteria to qualify. The area had to be served by "adequate public infrastructure (water, sewer, roads)," and proposals had to be consistent with the county's Master Plan. In addition, a company had to conform to environmental regulations, provide minimum salaries to a minimum number of employees and have a minimum capital investment of $500,000.

But "somewhere, the guidelines just evaporated," Dannelly said. And it chagrins me no end. Fast track is a disaster. They threw out the restrictions in the dark of night."

County economic development director John T. Lyburn agrees that public participation in the economic development process is "critical" but wants it to come at the beginning, rather than at the end, of the planning process.

"We understand that public participation and support is an essential part of achieving our goals for the county," he said.

Commission member Thomas G. Hiltz of Woodbine said he thinks the push for more scrutiny of commercial and industrial projects is rooted in the fact that "this planning commission takes its role as a citizen advisory oversight panel very seriously."

The problem, he said, is that the commission is "still constrained by our ability to subjectively review site plans" and as a result, developers often don't know from month to month how that subjectivity will play out. "It's a crap shoot almost," Hiltz said.

The solution, he said, is to develop a set of guidelines that would offer predictability and consistency.

"I don't think the planning commission is at all unfriendly to business and would be hurt by that characterization," Hiltz said.

Lyburn said he believes that a sensible review procedure can be worked out.

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