Zone board seeks help

Backlog of cases prompts officials to ask for assistant

Change needs voters' OK

Officer would handle routine issues, offer quicker action

July 02, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

If voters approve, Howard County may get a new hearing officer to cut a backlog of cases awaiting action by the part-time Board of Appeals.

A resolution asking voters to allow the five-member County Council to create such a position is to be introduced tomorrow. If it is approved by four council votes, the charter change will appear on November's ballot.

"The board has a tremendous workload right now," said Board of Appeals Chairman Robert C. Sharps. Cases are scheduled through mid-October, and some take months to be fully heard. A case in point, he said, is the proposed expansion of First Baptist Church in Guilford. The church case endured two rounds of hearings over nearly two years before the board decided last week to allow the expansion.

Sharps said the caseload has grown steadily in his more than two years of service.

And because the board meets two evenings a week, it can be hard to push the routine cases through in between the protracted disputed ones.

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said she and co-sponsor Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, want a hearing examiner to handle uncontested, routine cases, freeing the five-member board as many as 20 nights a year.

The voters must approve a change in the county charter to enable the council, which has authority over the board, to create the job.

A council vote is expected next month.

Officials said the idea is to hire a lawyer part time to hear routine cases such as renewals of special exceptions, appeals of administrative decisions and commercial variances in cases not near residential neighborhoods. Any decision by the examiner could be appealed to the full board.

"We need to be more able to respond to citizens in a more timely manner," Lorsung said.

She has briefed the other council members, and it appears the two Republicans will support the resolution.

"I actually think it's a very good concept," said western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman.

"It will be good to lighten the [board's] load," said Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

The appeals board members, who are paid up to $12,900 a year, depending on how many nights they meet, handle mainly land-use cases.

Despite that, Sharps said, the board can hear 26 other kinds of appeals, from animal control cases to the denial of a building permit.

Over the past two years, land-use issues have been by far the most common, Sharps said, and those involving requests for special exceptions for matters such as gas stations (15 cases) and church expansions (31 cases) usually require the majority of hearings.

According to a compilation prepared by the appeals board staff, a proposal to build housing for senior citizens at upscale Cattail Creek in the western county took 13 hearing nights.

A gas station proposal in rural Glenwood took 10 hearing nights, though the vast majority of cases are uncontested and take one hearing.

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