Building permits on 'fast track' Anne Arundel official has cut time to OK construction projects

December 23, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Developers of a possible NASCAR auto racing stadium near '' Fort Meade have been attracted to Anne Arundel County for an appropriate reason: The county's building permit approval process is built for speed.

In an effort to expand the county's tax base, the administration of County Executive John G. Gary has slashed the time required to get commercial building permits by about half since 1994.

In one case last December, the county approved in just 18 days a permit for the new headquarters of the Ciena high-tech company near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Gary's pedal-to-the-metal approach to business development has helped to double the number of commercial building permits issued during his term compared with the previous four years, according to county records.

This boom has contributed to a $24 million surplus for the county government that will help pay for school renovations and perhaps a real-estate tax cut next year, Gary said.

But some environmentalists worry that the race to "fast-track" construction projects may leave in the dust public input and environmental regulations. Gary administration officials say this won't happen.

But the anxieties of some community activists are heightened by the fact that Gary, a former homebuilder, picked as the head of the county's land-use office a former development engineer, Steven Cover. Cover helped design a controversial plan to build a Redskins stadium three years ago in western Anne Arundel County.

It is not far from this site that the Middle River RacAssociation is considering building its 100,000-seat racetrack and entertainment complex.

The industrial land west of Fort Meade and south of Route 32 is attractive partly because Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway are nearby, said company general manager Chris Lencheski.

But the site is also tempting because the developers need to move fast to win race dates from the NASCAR racing league -- and Anne Arundel has a reputation for "fast-tracking" big commercial projects.

The project is up in the air, with sites in Baltimore County, Kankakee, Ill., and elsewhere also under study. But Baltimore County has become less likely because of expected delays there of four years or more, sources familiar with the project said.

"Speed is of critical importance to us because the first tracks built are generally those that get the races," said Lencheski, whose organization has not yet committed to Anne Arundel County.

Gary said he would consider "fast-tracking" the racetrack project. But he said he would not skimp on public hearings or environmental protections.

The county would move ahead only if nearby residents don't object to the traffic and noise, Gary said.

"When I took office [in 1994], builders were breathing down my neck that it was taking them two years to get building permits," Gary said. "But now, there is no question that we are attracting more businesses because we say to the planning department, 'This has to be done by such-and-such a time, or we will lose the business. It's very important.' "

Developer's donations

Developers are some of the biggest contributors to Gary's campaigns. His most generous donor since 1993 has been the owner of a construction engineering company, Development Facilitators Inc., who has given $9,650 to Gary under family names, county records say.

Here's how Gary's administration has moved to attract business to the county:

The county's business-recruitment agency, Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., has been campaigning to lure new industry to the northern part of the county near BWI.

One of the biggest projects being wooed is a proposal by the Arlington, Va.-based Mills Corp. to build a 1.5 million-square-foot outlet mall near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 100.

The county's department of Planning and Code Enforcement next year plans to introduce legislation that would halve the time needed to get subdivisions approved.

Although this will give developers a break, the county also plans to require at least one more public hearing for each project to allow more public input, county officials said.

The speed with which the county issues commercial building permits has been cut over the past three years to an average of about six months today from an average of nine to 12 months, said Frank Ward, director of the county's permit application center.

Over the past decade, the time required for residential building permits has fallen to about 30 days from two to three months, Ward said.

The number of commercial building permits issued during Gary's administration is almost twice as high as the number issued during the full term of his predecessor.

From the 1995 fiscal year to present, the county has approved 421 commercial building permits. From 1991 to 1994, the county approved 233 of these permits, according to county records.

Meanwhile, the number of building permits for homes granted annually by the county has remained relatively stable at between 2,000 and 3,000.

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