Officials eye extra check over zoning

Proposal to create `people's counsel' gathers momentum

Resident groups like idea

Developers wary of plan to set up new layer of bureaucracy

May 30, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Eight months after two Howard County Council members floated a proposal designed to level the playing field in zoning battles, the initiative appears to be gaining momentum.

Supporters of the concept, commonly known as a people's counsel, are hopeful that a proposal could go to the voters in November.

The idea is to use taxpayer funds to hire an attorney who would serve as an independent advocate for existing zoning laws.

To residents who have fought zoning changes proposed for new developments or businesses, it's an attractive proposal.

Baltimore, Harford, Prince George's and Montgomery counties all have a people's counsel.

Howard County officials would have to amend the county charter to institute a people's counsel, which requires approval by the County Council and then by voters.

Councilmen Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, expect to bring legislation to the County Council soon - potentially in time for hearings in July and a vote in August.

Two Howard County residents' groups have thrown their support behind the idea.

But some developers think a people's counsel isn't a good use of taxpayer money because the county already has staff members - and elected officials - who enforce zoning regulations.

Guzzone and Merdon proposed the people's counsel idea eight months ago but delayed bringing the issue to the council while they research options.

"We have to be absolutely clear what we're trying to correct," Guzzone said. "You can define people's counsel in a lot of ways."

He supports a position that would defend the county's comprehensive zoning plan - in other words, the status quo.

Residents attempt to do just that when they're displeased with proposed development, but they're not familiar with the complex zoning regulations, he said.

"One of the frequent concerns that we hear from citizens is they're going up against big lawyers," Guzzone said.

But the position wouldn't be the equivalent of a public defender for residents fighting zoning requests, he added.

"We don't want to give the impression that you come in and say, `Well, where's my attorney?'" said Guzzone.

He said he is thinking about calling the position a "zoning counsel" to remove any potential confusion.

Bill Woodcock, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, said his members support the proposal because they believe the zoning process is broken.

The Ellicott City Residents' Association also wants to see a people's counsel in place, said the group's president, Bob Bernstein.

"The time to enact it is now," said Woodcock, an Ellicott City resident.

"A people's counsel would certainly help in closing that information and resource gap that residents - who are often serving as the protestants in zoning cases - feel," he said.

Jim Schulte, vice president of Security Development Corp. in Ellicott City, which sells lots to builders, agrees that it would be helpful to have someone to explain the ins and outs of zoning laws to residents. He said he prefers to face an opponent who understands the regulations.

But he said his experience with the people's counsel in Baltimore County makes him wonder if the position is a good idea.

"They feel like they have to oppose everything," Schulte said, even proposals that have widespread support.

"My opinion is that it's kind of a waste of money," he said. "But I'm not opposed to it."

Donald R. ReuwerJr., president of Land Design & Development in Ellicott City, considers the position a "pretty useless duplication" - and potentially another layer of confusion in the zoning process.

The Department of Planning and Zoning already makes sure that regulations are enforced, he said.

Plus, Howard County Council members double as the Zoning Board, and he thinks they're responsive to citizens.

"I don't see the need, I guess," he said.

Merdon said the people's counsel is needed because Howard County doesn't have an attorney, or any other staff person, who's allowed to present evidence, call witnesses and make arguments in zoning cases.

"This zoning counsel doesn't represent anyone," he said. "It represents the comprehensive zoning plan."

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