Enforcers fall behind on zoning violations Sluggish pace angers Balto. Co. residents

March 05, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

On a quiet street in a modest Pikesville neighborhood, Nai Manle's blighted vacant house has been partially hidden for years by weeds that top 6 feet.

Next door, 72-year-old Bessie Edelen warns her grandchildren to stay away from the fire-damaged cottage, frequented by vagrants and raccoons, marked by an abandoned Honda Accord -- and the subject of $128,400 in fines levied by county zoning officials.

From Pikesville to Owings Mills, Dundalk to the wealthy Green Spring Valley, unresolved zoning cases are roiling Baltimore County communities, sometimes taking years to work their way through a bureaucracy fettered by appeals, hearings and court challenges.

Limited by a small staff that faces 15,000 complaints each year, zoning officials acknowledge they are hard-pressed to keep up.

The sluggish pace of enforcement has sparked heated debate on quality of life and a new layer of bureaucracy created by the County Council last year in an attempt to break the logjam.

But the delays remain frustrating, officials and neighbors say. Manle's case is one example. Fined daily since June 1997, Manle failed to appear Tuesday before a county hearing officer, who transferred the matter to Baltimore County District Court. Manle did not return repeated calls from The Sun seeking comment.

Among other recent cases:

The helicopter that daily buzzes into Green Spring Valley to airlift Rite Aid Corp. Chairman Martin Grass to work at the company's Harrisburg, Pa., headquarters. Grass' Brooklandville neighbors have failed three times in hearings to ground the chopper -- despite a law that states its landing area violates restrictive agricultural zoning. Fines total $6,000.

Towson's former Club 101, now called Liquids. Denied a zoning permit in November to continue operating, the club remains open as its owner appeals the decision. No zoning citations or fines have been issued, but police continue to monitor activities at the club, where officers last year responded to 197 calls.

The Mount Vista Golf Course clubhouse. After neighbors discovered that owners were building a clubhouse three times the size allowed by zoning officials, they appealed to the zoning commissioner -- who expressed sympathy, but refused to order the structure torn down.

An Owings Mills GMC dealership with floodlights that shine into a neighbor's house. County inspectors cited the dealership for violations late last year after it installed the lights without seeking approval. A hearing is expected, pending results of negotiations.

Community leaders and attorneys who represent neighborhoods and property owners want the county to be more aggressive and seek court injunctions halting zoning violations until disputes are resolved.

"The enforcement division rarely goes to the law office," said Jack Dillon, director of the Valleys Planning Council, a land preservation group that has fought the landing of Grass' helicopter. "It's a disservice to these communities affected by zoning violations if they don't utilize the law."

J. Carroll Holzer, an attorney active in zoning cases, agreed.

"Enforcement of clear zoning violations has always bothered the county," he said. "It all falls back on the citizens to enforce the zoning citations, and it should fall on the county. The citizens have to hire their own attorney and spend their own money. There is absolutely no fear if you don't abide by the zoning laws in the county."

Cody Burkindine, a neighbor affected by the auto dealership lights, believes county officials are ignoring the problem. One of the dealership's owners, however, said the dealer is working with the county and a lighting contractor.

"I've called the county, and it's just like I don't even exist," Burkindine said. "I'm fed up with it. I can read a newspaper in my back yard with the lights that flood it, and I can walk through the house without turning on a light. I bought new blinds and it still doesn't help."

Critics say they see a passivity toward zoning enforcement that reflects a developer-friendly attitude dating back two county administrations.

But Arnold Jablon, director of the Department of Permits and Development Management, disputes that charge, insisting: "I'm no-one-friendly."

He defends the performance of his office, saying the 32 inspectors are able to settle 90 percent of annual complaints. Some complaints are dismissed by the hearing officer.

But the remaining 10 percent often present big problems, he says.

Until May, unresolved zoning complaints were forwarded to District Court -- and placed on an overloaded civil docket that averaged a hearing date eight months after the citation.

That delay frustrated community leaders, zoning officials and politicians. Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, pushed through legislation establishing a quasi-judicial process for quick results.

Today, zoning hearings are scheduled 45 days after the citation is issued. It's a process Kamenetz said is evolving and warrants monitoring.

Jablon notes that as a result of the quasi-judicial step, hearing officer Stanley Shapiro has levied $500,000 in fines and property liens. "I think that tells you something," Jablon said. "It's working."

Attorney Ben Bronstein, who represents landowners and developers in zoning disputes, said any hint that the county might be developer-friendly is "the ultimate in chutzpah. Anybody who goes through the development process has found it full of agony."

Even Jablon acknowledges the process can be frustrating. He spent two years fighting a zoning violation by his Randallstown neighbor over a junked car.

"I got a bench warrant against the neighbor," he said. "I don't have the authority to hang somebody, to tar and feather somebody. I just have due process. There are times when the defendant will play the system for all it's worth, but we will go the distance, and people have to understand that going the distance takes time."

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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