Do we really want zoning storm troopers?

March 15, 1998|By Elise Armacost

IN GLEN BURNIE, the Rev. Jamie Harrison has started a church in his home. A sign identifying the Glen Burnie Evangelical Methodist Church sits in the front yard of his duplex. Each Sunday, his little congregation gathers in his living room.

There is a problem with this: It's illegal. Under Anne Arundel County's zoning code, you can't operate a church in a house that sits on less than 2 acres, a restriction designed to protect communities from excess traffic and noise.

A neighbor complained, and inspectors sent a letter directing Mr. Harrison to comply or be subject to enforcement action.

The church continues to meet. If the congregation grows, the community no doubt will object. But, for now, few people seem to care that the law is being ignored.

This incident is worth remembering in light of the ruckus in Baltimore County over zoning enforcement, where a lot of community leaders and property owners want more aggressive enforcement to make violators stop, pronto.

There and elsewhere, many residents are upset with the bureaucratic process that chugs along, giving violators repeated extensions to comply with the law. People are breaking the law, darn it, and it's the county's job to stop them and make them pay.

Well, yes, it is. But a bit of perspective, please. Zoning violations are not capital offenses. Society does not break down because someone has an illegal sign in the yard.

Zoning violations are more like traffic infractions: A lot of nice, otherwise law-abiding people are guilty. It's impossible to catch every zoning violator; besides, most people wouldn't like such a government crackdown.

Evolving thought

Moreover, no consensus exists about the circumstances under which rigorous enforcement is appropriate. People may say they want tough, consistent zoning enforcement, but attitudes change depending on the situation. A government that fines a small, scofflaw church risks being condemned as heavy-handed.

We want laws swiftly and firmly enforced when their violation affects our quality of life. But, generally, we cherish the notion of property rights, and expect government to be as nonintrusive as possible regarding private property, sometimes even when we break the law.

Mr. Harrison complains that the zoning law "infringes on my rights as a property owner," a complaint voiced by countless people caught with too-large garages, unregistered vehicles and insufficient setbacks.

Baltimore County Director of Inspections and Permits Arnold Jablon recalls that four years ago, one community association asked his department, which normally enforces by complaint, to "sweep" the neighborhood. "We did it, and, boy, did we do it," picking up scads of junked cars, decrepit recreational vehicles and more.

And, boy, did people hate it. A community meeting was held, "and that meeting was mobbed. There was total anger at the community association officials for asking for the sweep. [Neighbors wanted to know] what right did three or four people have to play havoc with a community that was totally happy living with violations?" The community association hasn't again tried to get tough on zoning violations.

We would get swifter action if enforcement officers had police powers. But we would soon rebel against the sight of a father being hauled away in handcuffs for running a body shop in the back yard. That's a key reason why governments deal with zoning as a civil matter, and why the process can be frustratingly slow. Because they are dealing with private property, the emphasis is on getting people to comply, either by stopping what they're doing or getting the appropriate variances, permits, etc.

Usually, that works. In Baltimore County, 90 percent of violations are resolved after issuance of a letter and citation; another 5 percent are resolved after a violations hearing. The remaining 5 percent are the cases that drive communities crazy and prompt criticism of government enforcement.

Cracking down on scofflaws

Unfortunately, when people are determined to defy the law, there is not much that can be done quickly. Governments do not have the power to tear down somebody's shed. A court injunction won't necessarily solve the problem, either. Stubborn violators are likely to ignore injunctions, and the court procedures for finding someone in contempt can drag on for months.

No wonder, then, that people sometimes wish zoning enforcers would act more like storm troopers. But we should be careful what we wish for, lest one day we discover that the garage we just built sits too close to the property line.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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