Forum takes up issue of hiring zoning experts

County mulls bringing in people's counsel to deal with legal complexities

June 13, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Residents who would like to see Howard County get a people's counsel - an independent advocate to deal with sometimes contentious zoning cases - learned about the job last night from someone who knows it inside out.

Namely, Baltimore County's people's counsel, Peter Max Zimmerman.

Zimmerman answered questions at a forum sponsored by the Howard County Citizens Association at the George Howard building in Ellicott City.

Also present was Larry Burkins, Anne Arundel County's administrator of current planning, who works with the county's administrative hearing officer. The officer presides over zoning cases.

Howard County Council members are considering establishing the positions of people's counsel and administrative hearing officer, although no legislation to that end has been filed.

The idea behind a people's counsel is to use taxpayer funds to hire an attorney who would serve as an independent advocate for existing zoning laws.

Twenty-five people attended the forum, which lasted a little longer than an hour.

Zimmerman said his office reviews all of the approximately 500 zoning cases each year but takes a position on far fewer. Sometimes he submits a written statement, and sometimes he argues his position in hearings.

Burkins said Anne Arundel County's administrative hearing officer hears all of the zoning cases and makes a decision on each one. People can appeal the decisions to the Board of Appeals.

"I think it takes away a great burden on the council," which would otherwise have to hear the cases, Burkins said.

In Howard, the council hears zoning cases.

Clarksville resident Elizabeth Riordon asked Zimmerman whether his office answers questions from citizens involved in zoning disputes. She said she tried to fight a proposal for a new Clarksville gas station in Circuit Court, but that legalese tripped her up.

"Here in Howard County, they say: `We know the answer, but we can't tell you,'" she said.

Zimmerman said he does answer residents' questions about the zoning process. "We want to see that everyone feels that they've gotten a fair shake," he said.

Councilmen Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, expect to finish drafting legislation calling for a people's counsel soon.

Harford, Prince George's and Montgomery counties also have people's counsels.

Some developers have contended that a people's counsel isn't a good use of taxpayer money because the county already has an agency and elected officials who enforce zoning regulations.

But residents at the forum seemed supportive of such a position.

"Howard County desperately needs a people's counsel," said Ed Walter, a Woodstock resident who fought a proposed gas station near Waverly Mansion. "We have nobody defending existing zoning."

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