Planning for unexpected becomes the expected


November 08, 1998|By Mike Burns

JUST AFTER the exhaustive, comprehensive revision of county's master land use plan -- involving more than 100 citizen volunteers, four work groups and three years of effort -- we learn that the zoning code needs to be updated. Not adjusted or tinkered with, but overhauled.

And what about the hullabaloo over the members and powers of the county Planning and Zoning Commission? Their legal tiffs with the Board of Zoning Appeals, flaps over members' pay and night meetings? Now we find that this seven-member commission doesn't even review two-thirds of the basic site plans submitted for developments.

Instead, the county planning director, Philip J. Rovang, or the commission chairman, Thomas G. Hiltz, decides which projects should go to the full commission. Sometimes they confer.

We have no reason to doubt the honest and conscientious effort of these two men. They've certainly made some decisions with )) the input of other members of the planning panel. Obviously, controversial cases are passed on to the full body.

There's been no previous hint that members were upset by the lack of opportunity to review any sensitive project.

A surprising vote

So it came as a surprise last month when the Planning Commission members unanimously voted that all site plans come before the panel. Not because they shouldn't but because many people thought that was already the procedure. Mr. Hiltz, as chairman, did not vote (because it was not a tie). County Commissioner Richard T. Yates, the ex-officio member, did not attend the meeting.

The three county commissioners can change that decision by simply revising the ordinance governing the appointed Planning Commission.

Two of them are leaning that way, even though they unashamedly took a powder on approving (or disapproving) the master plan this summer.

They decided time was too short to analyze and decide the issues of the plan, even though these commissioners approved an interim development ban and a subsequent law severely limiting residential growth over the next five years. Now these lame ducks want to reopen a philosophical discussion of growth in Carroll County?

Accelerating growth

One thing is sure. The discussion will head in an opposite direction from 1994, when controlling growth was the winning issue. With the election of Donald I. Dell and his professed "soul mate" Robin Bartlett Frazier for the next four years, the dialogue has swung to accelerating growth.

There was certainly no reason to to adopt a master plan unacceptable to the ruling majority of commissioners, Mr. Dell and Mr. Yates. But these men were bound by oath of office to analyze and make decisions on this fundamental question of public policy, not to table it because they didn't want to be bothered.

If the Planning Commission is still revising the document at the end of the commissioners' term in December, fine.

What we're hearing, however, is that fundamental goals of the document are open to challenge.

It's not only a slap in the face for citizens who volunteered hundreds of hours to produce the plan. It is also a political attempt to delay the enactment of a plan to guide the county's land use for the next two decades.

The recent call to overhaul the county zoning code was even more curious. A six-member committee, from the planning, zoning appeals and economic development panels, was asked to look at whether "conditional" (non-industrial) uses should be allowed on industry-zoned land.

After much study, the group recommended that the primary zoning code be revised, instead of fulfilling its assigned task.

Skirting the issue

Perhaps the overall code does need revision and refinement. But why wasn't this need brought up earlier by those in the know? The three bodies deal regularly with the minutiae of county zoning.

To propose total revision just before the November election is poor timing, at the least. And to suggest it months after the proposed master plan has been published seems to be a further disservice.

The current commissioners will rightly leave that complicated zoning overhaul for the new trio of commissioners. That may allow for a closer coordination with the master plan proposal. The concern is that ways to enhance economic development in Carroll will be further delayed, after years of study and discussion.

With business accounting for less than 12 percent of the county tax base, the pressing need for nonresidential growth is well-recognized.

Indeed, one objection to the planning commission's review of every project is that it may discourage economic development.

That challenge has no simple, easy solutions. But taking decisive action on key elements of the process for evaluating development projects is imperative. It can't wait another four years.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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