Planning panel adopts rules Director not required to be appointed commission secretary

March 09, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

When the Planning and Zoning Commission adopted rules for governing itself last week, it cast doubt on the county planning director's traditional role as secretary to the planning panel.

Shortly before approving the rules by a 4-2 vote Thursday night, the commission eliminated a clause in a working draft that would have made the director its secretary.

The new wording says only that the commission will elect "a secretary" each November. No mention is made of the planning directors in the newly adopted rules.

But to characterize the change as limiting the role of the planning director is to misunderstand the commission's action, said Chairman Thomas G. Hiltz of Woodbine.

"The director of planning and zoning still has a vital role" in commission activities, Hiltz said. "He will still serve as the staff representative on matters coming before us."

Although the person elected secretary each year is usually the planning director, -- currently, Philip J. Rovang -- that has not always been true, Hiltz said, noting that a previous board once chose the county zoning administrator as secretary.

Vice Chairman Joseph H. Mettle of Sykesville -- who voted for the new rules -- said he would have preferred that wording describing the "hand-to-hand partnership between the chairman and the planning director be retained" in the rules.

"I felt that Phil Rovang had day-to-day knowledge that maybe Tom Hiltz did not have," Mettle said. "I would have preferred a joint venture to one person having all that authority. We need checks and balances in every walk of life."

Despite misgivings, Mettle said, he voted for the rules because he felt state law required the panel to adopt them.

Commission member Robert H. Lennon, a Westminster attorney, disagreed, saying the commission had operated 30 years without such rules.

However, if the commission were going to adopt them, Lennon (( said, he wanted to eliminate the clause making the planning director the panel's secretary because "the planning director serves two masters" -- the County Commissioners and the planning board.

And the two masters frequently clash over growth controls.

Veto power sought

The current Board of County Commissioners, which expanded the planning panel from five to seven members, sought veto power over commission decisions on subdivisions -- something the county's General Assembly delegation refused to give them last year, believing that the planning commission should remain independent.

In July, Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates fired Lennon from the planning panel -- a move that a Circuit Court judge ruled was illegal. The judge restored Lennon to the commission and issued an order directing the commissioners not to take further action against him.

Although Lennon succeeded in amending the planning commission's stance on the secretary Thursday night, he voted against the four pages of new rules as "ill-conceived" and unnecessary.

A planning commission subcommittee began work on the new rules more than a year ago after the panel's legal adviser said state law requires the panel to adopt rules of procedure -- something it had never done before.

Lennon disagreed with the interpretation, saying "the more you set up rules" for conduct of the commission's business, "the more you set up opportunity for legal challenges."

He urged defeat of the measure, saying such detailed rules about how to conduct the commission's business will create loopholes every local attorney will exploit.

"This is a full-employment act for local attorneys," Lennon said. "They are going to create legal consequences that will allow rapid development."

Review by legal adviser

But Hiltz said the commission's legal adviser, Laurell Taylor, who was away Thursday, had reviewed the working draft given commission members and found no loopholes. Taylor will examine the final version, Hiltz said, and if she finds flaws, the rules will be amended.

The new rules will "add predictability and stability to the commission's process and provide a basis for considering changes," Hiltz said.

Planning commission member Melvin E. Baile Jr. of New Windsor voted with the majority to adopt the rules but said he was not sure they were necessary.

He voted for them, he said, because they seem to accurately reflect the way the planning panel functions.

But "until the rules are tested, we won't know whether they're the right rules," Baile said.

The rules will be tested March 18 at the commission's next meeting.

Baile said he expects that adjustments will be made as members begin working with the new rules.

"They're going to change," he said. "I guarantee you that."

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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