New job put on ballot

Voters to decide need for hearing officer to rule in zoning cases

Residents seek a say

Council delays issue of people's counsel on development issues

July 28, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County voters will decide if a hearing examiner is needed to speed development cases through the Board of Appeals after the County Council's unanimous approval last night of a bill placing the issue on the November ballot.

The council delayed voting on a companion bill that would create the position of zoning counsel to help level the field between wealthy developers and the public. Sponsors Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, and Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said they want more time to consider all the suggestions offered at a public hearing July 17. A vote won't come before September, after the council's August recess.

Some community activists want a more powerful public advocate than the part-time position of zoning counsel the bill would create. Ed Walter, one of those activists, is gathering signatures for a petition to place the issue on the ballot, calling the councilmen's bill "a toothless tiger."

Their bill would not give the counsel power to participate in Board of Appeals decisions or to appeal decisions to Circuit Court. Walter's measure, which requires amending the charter, would allow both and would make the people's counsel a full-time job.

Although many observers doubt that Walter has time to gather the required 10,000 signatures by the deadline, Aug. 14, his supporters think the effort is worthwhile.

"The petition drive may end up forcing issues and bringing things to the forefront" even if the drive doesn't succeed, said Robert I. Bernstein, president of the Ellicott City Residents Association. And though the council's bill doesn't go as far as residents might want, "it's a start," Bernstein said.

The hearing examiner also is envisioned as a part-time job. The council vote places the issue on the ballot, giving voters the power to approve or reject the idea.

The parameters of the job won't be established until after the election, though council members have said they will tell voters the job description before the election.

Council members envision the hearing examiner as a way to speed noncontroversial cases through the Board of Appeals, which has cases scheduled through October.

But some citizens want the examiner to bear more responsibility by hearing all Board of Appeals cases first.

The council's idea is to have the examiner hear routine cases only, leaving the board free to deal with controversial ones.

"This will really bring some efficiency to the process of the Board of Appeals," Guzzone said after he voted. "This is one step, but a very key step," he said, in a broader effort to make the county's development process more open and understandable to county residents.

In other action, the council voted 5-0 to allow construction of a controversial 1,400-foot pathway in the village of River Hill. The Columbia Association, which wants to build the path to connect two developments -Pheasant Ridge I and II - needed the council to grant an easement across county land.

The village board approved the project, but residents who live closest to the proposed path don't want it, citing fear of strangers, litter and crime if it is built. Residents of the two subdivisions voted 66-38 in favor of the path.

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat who represents River Hill, had little sympathy for the fears of those who do not want the path built.

After living 28 years in the town, she said, "The Columbia neighborhood and pathway system is an important part of connecting people. Columbia is not the best choice for someone who wishes to live in an isolated community."

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