Council bill on waivers abandoned

Development process will be more open, county officials say

`A middle ground'

Board wants to work with administration, Klosterman says

March 07, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Signs of spring have arrived early at the Arundel Center, as once-frigid relations between County Executive Janet S. Owens and some County Council members have suddenly begun to thaw.

Two weeks ago, amid complaints of poor communication with Owens, Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk and four colleagues proposed limiting the administration's power on some key development issues. Their bill would have required public hearings before the county could grant developers major waivers to subdivision rules.

Yesterday, though, Samorajczyk abandoned the bill after county officials pledged to increase public participation. Her decision came after she met Friday with Owens and the county's new top planning and code enforcement officials, Denis Canavan and Walter Chitwood.

Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. hailed the turn of events as a good omen.

"It goes deeper than waivers," said Klosterman, a Millersville Democrat. "It goes to the fact that the council wants to work with the administration."

Waivers were an important issue in Owens' 1998 campaign, as she criticized county officials for allowing developers to build more houses around overcrowded schools. Since being elected, she has ended the school waivers, but the overall number of waivers has not dropped significantly. Many residents are still concerned.

Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat, was out of town yesterday and unavailable for comment but said through an aide that Canavan promised her the bill was unnecessary. She had wanted public hearings whenever developers sought waivers to storm-water management rules or regulations intended to ensure adequate roads, schools and other facilities.

Canavan, the planning director, may require developers to notify affected residents before a project receives final subdivision approval. Those meetings are open to the public, but nearby residents are not alerted through newspaper ads or signs posted on the property, which Canavan would propose. Notification would occur even when no waiver was requested.

"We intend to open up the process, so there will be more public participation whether there are waiver requests or not," said Betty Dixon, the county's land-use and environmental program manager. If a waiver request was submitted after final review, she added, those who attended the final review meeting would be mailed a notice.

Residents are currently notified about a proposed development only during "sketch review," a preliminary step that occurs before a developer might realize a waiver is needed. In some cases, developers are allowed to skip sketch review and go straight to final review.

Canavan has agreed to outline his plan to the council in a month. He also will give the council a breakdown of the 198 waivers granted during the first year of Owens' administration -- compared with an average of 203 under former County Executive John G. Gary.

While many of the 198 waivers were granted for relatively minor purposes -- removal of a sick tree, for example -- 25 involved controls on storm water and 10 allowed construction despite inadequate roads.

One of Samorajczyk's concerns about handling the situation administratively was that developers might balk at having to pay advertising costs. Dixon said she does not expect that to be a problem.

If the administrative approach does not work, Canavan told Samorajczyk she can reintroduce her bill.

Councilwoman Shirley Murphy, a Democrat who signed on to the bill, is willing to give the administration a chance. "Let's not just jump into the frying pan," she said. "I'm willing to back off and work with the administration. If the end result is we're all working together, great."

Klosterman, who recently compared Anne Arundel's elected officials to a squabbling family, called the handling of the waiver bill a model for dealing with contentious issues.

"We, the council, want to work with the county executive, and this was a good way to show we're willing to come to the table and find a middle ground," he said. "This is the way government works: You sit around the table and hash it out."

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