For Howard County residents who worry about waking in surprise to the sound of bulldozers where trees stood the day before, help may be on the way.
After months of discussion, the County Council is asking a 12-member advisory committee to suggest ways of giving people more notice and information about proposed changes in their neighborhoods.
"In my nine years' experience on the planning board, the thing that most upset the community are conditional uses [formerly called special exceptions]," said board Chairwoman Joan Lancos, who is a member of the advisory committee. The public perceives conditional uses as zoning changes, even though they aren't, she said.
The committee is to recommend to the County Council changes in zoning procedures involving conditional-use cases. The recommendations are to be submitted by Oct. 31. Legislative proposals to change county zoning laws based on the committee's work are expected to follow.
The council recently agreed on a list of 12 possible changes to the zoning process for the committee to examine. Most are items left over after debate on a major zoning law revision approved by the County Council by a 3-2 vote May 7.
The law created a new zoning category for active senior housing, changed the name "special exception" to "conditional use," and altered regulations governing issues ranging from helicopter landings to propane storage.
All but one of the items on the list of possible changes were proposed as amendments to the 114-page bill by Republicans Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and the western county's Allan H. Kittleman. They were rejected by Democrats, who argued that the bill was already too complex to consider last-minute changes, though they agreed that several of the ideas had merit.
The most vital issue, said council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, concerns a proposal to require disclosure of all information about an application at least 30 days before a hearing. Most of the other issues involve disclosure, notification of community groups and neighbors, or procedures for changing the terms of approvals from the Planning Board, Board of Appeals or the Zoning Board.
Guzzone said zoning procedures might seem to be a dry subject, but that people become very interested when something comes along that could affect them.
"I think it's important to the people who engage in the process, and that could be anybody," Guzzone said.
The formation of the committee was proposed May 12 by Merdon and Kittleman, who were joined by the other three members of the council and County Executive James N. Robey. Summer scheduling problems and debate among council members over how broad the panel's work should be delayed the start of the committee. The first session is set for 4 p.m. Aug. 29 at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
While the 12 listed items are the group's top priority, a letter from the County Council to committee members said that other issues could be examined later.
Merdon and Kittleman said they'd like to see the committee work on defining the powers and duties of the part-time Board of Appeals hearing examiner approved by voters last fall. The hearing examiner is supposed to reduce a backlog of board cases, but the council has not yet described the job in detail or hired anyone for the position.
"It seems to make sense to have these very knowledgeable people define that, too," Merdon said.
But Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, said that he's planning to submit a bill defining the job in September, so the committee need not examine it.
"I agree that this [hearing examiner] is taking a little longer than necessary, but I've been working on that. We should iron out the jurisdiction for the hearing examiner," Gray said.
Members of the study committee include former County Executive Edward Cochran; four attorneys who are frequently involved in development issues, Thomas Dernoga, David Carney, Richard Talkin and Susan Gray; Board of Appeals Chairman Robert Sharps; former planning board member Helen Ruther; and residents Stuart Kohn of North Laurel, Linda Dombrowski of Ellicott City, Guy Silas of Glenwood, and Alfreda Bowles of Columbia.