Night planning meetings chopped But commissioners OK more citizen input

February 11, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners sent a mixed message yesterday on how much public involvement they want in the development review process.

By a 2-0 vote, they approved a proposal giving residents the right to comment at meetings in which technical development plans are reviewed, but said they will no longer pay for nighttime Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission meetings that frequently draw many community activists.

"For every step forward, we take two back," said Dan Hughes, founder of Solutions for a Better South Carroll, a community group that has worked for growth controls. "This is a farce that sends a clear signal as to how the commissioners view citizen input."

A proposal, drafted by the county planning department and approved yesterday, invites citizens' comment at the subdivision advisory committee meetings, a gathering of all county departments involved in development. The new procedure, which requires the county to advertise and post signs at proposed development sites prior to the meetings, will begin a six-month trial in April.

But, in his motion to approve the concept, Commissioner Donald I. Dell also removed funding for a second monthly planning commission meeting -- the one held during evening hours at rotating locations throughout the county.

"Eliminating night meetings is in effect curtailing citizen input," said Joseph H. Mettle, a planning commission member.

And the commission often needs the extra time to attend to all its business, Mettle said.

"They are going to cancel one meeting a month, when they can hardly get by with two," said Nimrod Davis, a member of Solutions for a Better South Carroll. "Builders and their lawyers say their full piece. Why can't citizens have the same opportunity?"

Commissioner Richard T. Yates, a South Carroll resident elected on a slow-growth platform, supported Dell's motion.

"Yates should be ashamed of his vote," said Hughes. "His constituents have insisted on more input and he takes away a place where it could occur."

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown could not attend the vote yesterday, but he had given his approval by proxy to Max Bair, the commissioners' chief of staff. Brown said last night he was unaware of Dell's plan to amend the proposal. Bair abstained from the vote when Dell added the amendment cutting funding for the nighttime meetings.

"This was outrageous to do without the consent of the planning commission," Brown said last night. "The public should be as deeply involved as it cares to be with public business."

The county pays each of the seven planning commissioners $90 for every official meeting, often as many as 36 sessions a year. Canceling meetings is a cost-cutting measure that could save the county as much as $6,000 annually, Dell said.

Brown said he is unsure of the legality of canceling planning meetings.

"The law gives great latitude to the planning commission and we are required to fund it," Brown said.

But public participation in subdivision advisory meetings -- an early stage of the planning process -- will give residents ample opportunity to comment on developments, Dell said.

"The citizens can talk up-front at SAC meetings or at the regular planning meetings," Dell said. "The second meeting is getting expensive and has served its purpose. SAC meetings will take its place.

"The planning commission can meet [with citizens] every day, but they will only be paid for one meeting a month," Dell said.

Many residents cannot take the time from their own work days to attend meetings, said Mettle, who promised to continue the night sessions without pay if necessary.

For about 15 months, the planning commission has been scheduling two monthly meetings.

"The second meeting was designed for citizen input," said Philip J. Rovang, county planning director. "A lot of people turned out for those meetings."

Last week, about 100 people attended a planning commission meeting in Sykesville to discuss town issues and the citizen input proposal.

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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