Brown, Yates reverse stand against panel Commissioners let bill on zoning board die without vote

'Reasons to pause'

They will pursue law requiring adequate facilities

September 26, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The County Commissioners decided yesterday that muzzling the Board of Zoning Appeals is not the way to slow the county's growth.

A better solution, they say, is to enact an adequate facilities law -- something they hope to do by the end of the year.

The appeals board had become a thorn for at least two of the commissioners because it reversed the county planning commission often in the past year, allowing developers to build subdivisions the planning commission had said they couldn't.

For County Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates, who appointed six newcomers to the seven-member planning commission to implement their slow-growth philosophy, that was a problem.

"It's like having two organizations doing the same thing," Yates said in June when the commissioners first discussed the issue. "It's like having two planning commissions."

Brown and Yates decided that the solution to what County Attorney George A. Lahey called "considerable conflict between the BZA and the planning commission" was to enact a law requiring planning commission appeals to go directly to Circuit Court.

But when the time came for them to enact such a law yesterday, Brown and Yates reversed themselves. They let the bill die without being called for a vote.

Local attorneys claimed the bill was illegal and had vowed to sue if the commissioners passed the measure.

Brown said yesterday that he was convinced in discussions with the county attorney "that we have every legal right to pass this ordinance as written," but there were other "reasons to pause."

By stripping the Board of Appeals of its power to overturn planning decisions, the commissioners could be adversely affecting "average citizens" who might feel comfortable appealing a planning commission decision to the board, but uncomfortable appealing it to court, Brown said.

He also was concerned that the proposed bill could be perceived as "a slap at the BZA" -- a three-member appointed board that is doing a good job and has his confidence, Brown said.

Recent court opinions criticizing county procedures and allowing subdivisions to go forward "have made the waters more muddy than ever," Brown said. "You don't dive headlong into muddy waters."

Yates said he favored the proposed law until last week when the court ruled against the county in three successive subdivision cases.

"The courts are getting into a legislative function," Yates said. "I don't know if we even have one board now to pass on developments." In one of the cases last week, the court ruled the planning commission's criteria for halting development in areas with crowded schools was flawed.

As a result, "I wonder about our own planning commission and what their function will be" now, said Yates, who is the commissioners' representative to the planning commission.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell had opposed the Brown-Yates proposal from the beginning, saying the conflict between the planning commission and the appeals board would disappear once the commissioners adopted an adequate facilities law to control the county's growth.

Brown appeared to take that view also yesterday, saying he has faith in the commissioners' ability to craft an effective growth ordinance.

Two attorneys who won cases for their developer clients in Circuit Court last week said Brown and Yates did the right thing by letting their proposal die.

"The present system has been in place for a long time," said Westminster attorney Clark R. Shaffer. "In my experience -- and I have won and lost -- it is a fair system to handle appeals. I think the recent court decisions reinforced that fairness."

John T. Maguire II, the Westminster attorney who convinced Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. that the planning commission's criteria for judging school criteria were flawed, said the Brown-Yates proposal would have taken away property owners' right to due process.

"At least under the present system, they get the opportunity to bring out all the facts" -- which may be the reason many planning commission cases were overturned, Maguire said.

The appeals board spends hours and sometimes days hearing appeals in a trial-like atmosphere. The planning commission has more of a public-hearing atmosphere. Cases are usually heard and decided in less than an hour, he said.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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