Citizen input plan is not prescription for anarchy


February 09, 1997|By Mike Burns

IF THIS BE anarchy, make the most of it.

Pardon me, Patrick Henry, for paraphrasing you as riposte to the foes of Carroll County's proposal for citizen input on new developments.

Yet this simple matter of letting the public know about and respond to development plans seems to have enflamed the rhetorical spirit of its opponents.

"Anarchy" was the way one land owner described the public-notification, public-input rules approved by the county 11 Planning and Zoning Commission last week. A Jacobin uprising of rabble who dare interfere with the royal affairs of state.

"We're about to let the inmates run the asylum," cried the owner of a South Carroll air strip.

"Throughout the state, Carroll County is known to be very anti-business; this proposal is another step that no other county will touch," warned Ed Primoff, founder of a landowner rights organization.

"We're competing with counties who give permits in two or three days," noted Jack Lyburn, county economic development director.

No pioneer

In fact, Carroll's plan for citizen involvement in the review of residential and commercial developments is no pioneer.

Harford and Baltimore counties have more opportunity for citizen input than the Carroll proposal, which is expected to get approval of the county Board of Commissioners this week.

Their differing plans call for earlier community notification and participation in the development process. Citizens have established forums through which they can voice their concerns about new developments in those two counties. They don't just get a pro forma chance to speak after the county technical approvals are all but signed.

Neither Harford nor Baltimore county has, to my knowledge, lost out to Carroll in attracting new business and construction because of their citizen input laws. In fact, Harford's so-called "fast track" process for new development has frequently been cited as a national model. And I don't recall either of them citing a fast-food outlet as a major county economic development coup, either.

The Carroll proposal is, however, a belated step in the right direction. It does not copy Harford or Baltimore counties, but creates a new forum for public comment, without revising the system.

The recommendation to the commissioners is for a six-month trial. That's a good intention, but may be too short a time in which to reach a conclusion.

The chance for public comment will come at the Subdivision Advisory Committee meetings, which have heretofore focused on technical aspects of a developer's plan, such as water and sewer.

As we have been told repeatedly, SAC meetings are always open to the public. But the communities affected by these projects have not always been informed of what their county officials were reviewing and approving at those meetings.

The SAC conferences are held in small rooms filled with planning staff members and developer consultants, hardly conducive to a true public meeting. They are also held during the daytime, when fewer members of the public are free to attend.

The new process expands the public notification requirements, so that interested persons can plan to attend the appropriate SAC review session.

Adjacent property owners would get at least two weeks' written notice of the meeting. Community notice signs would be posted on adjacent roads three weeks prior to the meeting, and the meeting agenda publicized in newspapers and in the county libraries. The public would be told where to get more information on a particular development.

The process would cover subdivisions of more than three lots, new commercial developments and expansion by 25 percent of existing commercial sites. Industrial developments and agricultural land projects would, for the present, be excluded.

Now, assuming all this procedure works as it should, and public comment actually takes place at the end of a SAC meeting, what would be the impact on a particular project? Actually, the developer who has no technical problem with the state and local codes could totally ignore that public input. There's no requirement that suggestions, comments or criticisms be addressed.

So it is not as if this process creates a new hurdle for a project, another hoop to leap through. A smart developer may learn something and may make some adaptations to address certain concerns. But she doesn't have to.

Too late

A major flaw in the proposal is that it comes too late in the development process, after a developer has already spent considerable money on engineering studies and detailed plans. At that point, anyone would be reluctant to change the plans. Baltimore County provides an early "concept stage" hearing (at night) for citizen participation, which meets this problem. Carroll would be wise to choose that approach in the future, which has yet to provoke anarchy in the neighboring county.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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