Carroll planning panel votes to do reviews of all site plans Officials fear change will hurt business climate, slow commercial projects

October 22, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission has adopted a major policy change that officials fear may tarnish Carroll's business reputation.

The commission voted unanimously Tuesday to review every site plan submitted to the planning department -- a move that could slow commercial and industrial development projects by a month or more.

Until yesterday, commission Chairman Thomas G. Hiltz or Philip J. Rovang, county planning director, approved many minor project site plans on behalf of the planning panel.

Officials oppose change

The vote to impose another requirement on commercial and industrial developers is opposed by Carroll officials trying to increase the county's business tax base -- which is slightly less than 12 percent, the lowest in the Baltimore region.

Carroll has few business lures other than a speedy trip through the development pipeline.

"The pendulum shifted completely Tuesday," Hiltz said yesterday. "We don't know all the consequences" of the vote.

Viewing the policy change as potentially harmful, the county commissioners have asked to meet with the planning panel and the executive committee of the county Economic Development Commission "as soon as possible."

The issue underlying the policy change is "how much authority does the planning panel give up to staff," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "I have the same concern, as a county commissioner" when dealing with the county staff.

"You don't want to be assume responsibility for something you didn't know about," Dell said.

But he is concerned that the vote "might look like the county is not business-friendly."

Westminster attorney John T. Maguire III, who frequently represents developers before the planning commission, said, "It seems like overkill to send smaller site plans to the full planning commission. On the other hand, they want to see what's happening. There ought to be a system that allows them to do that without having to go through the 45- to 60-day review" given larger site plans.

The policy change will be perceived as anti-business, said Martin Hackett, president of the local chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland and vice president of a Westminster engineering and surveying business that works with residential and commercial developers.

"It's another opportunity to create an unfriendly business environment in the county," Hackett said. "Most of the site plans -- especially those that change or intensify the use -- come before the planning commission anyway.

"The people hurt most will be those seeking small changes, like a restaurant owner who wants to add a 10- to 20-foot addition to the kitchen. It will increase the costs and could invite adverse public comment just because someone didn't like the food."

Paige Sunderland, county business development manager who was present for Tuesday's vote, said the Office of Economic Development has "no comment on the decision."

Hiltz, who as chairman does not vote except in case of a tie, said Tuesday's 5-0 vote "changed a pretty significant policy in a fairly short period of time."

Caught by surprise

Hiltz and other county officials were clearly surprised by the decision.

"I went into the meeting thinking we would have some meaningful dialogue on the criteria for bringing a site plan before the commission," he said.

The issue of establishing criteria for when the entire commission should review a site plan surfaced 18 months ago, Hiltz said.

However, the panel let the matter drop.

Hiltz revived the issue this month after seeking advice from his colleagues about a minor site plan. Most told him to approve the plan, but questions from a couple of members led him to believe it was time to revisit the criteria issue, he said.

The discussion was expected to be routine.

But planning commission member Grant S. Dannelly of Marriottsville said: "All site plans should come before us because we always find out more things about a site when it is discussed openly.

"It also gives the public an additional chance to comment on it. I'm convinced the planning commission needs to be totally apprised of site plans."

Commission member Maurice E. Wheatley of Eldersburg agreed.

"I don't like driving around and seeing something being built that I don't know about," he said. "I don't think a planning commission member should do that. I firmly believe it is our responsibility to approve site plans. I don't believe we should pass that off to someone else."

Policy called 'nebulous'

Vice Chairwoman Deborah L. Ridgely of Finksburg said the policy of allowing the chairman or the planning director to approve some site plans for the commission was made before she became a member. "Frankly, I've always felt that was a bit nebulous," she said.

The more the commission "sought to clear things up [Tuesday], the more confusing it seemed," she said.

"I thought the best thing to do -- at least in the beginning -- is to have the planning commission review everything. Then we can change it if we move out from there."

Hiltz said the commission has changed policies in the past soon after adopting them and could do so in this instance.

"There is still opportunity to review this when new information becomes available," he said.

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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