Bill to set appeals rules

Measure would fix guidelines for examiner's post

Backlog in land-use cases

September 26, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's voters acted 10 months ago, but the County Council is just catching up in the drive to eliminate a backlog of Board of Appeals cases.

A bill to be introduced Monday night would finally establish the guidelines for a hearing examiner's job approved by Howard voters in November.

The bill would require any case that comes before the Board of Appeals to first be heard by the new, part-time hearing examiner. The examiner's decisions could then be appealed to the full Board of Appeals, where the case would be heard as if new. County officials say this system will eliminate a four-month backlog that has more than 30 cases scheduled into February, and still give new hearings before the board to people who file appeals.

"I think it's good. Both parties [in a case] will receive an expeditious hearing," said County Executive James N. Robey.

The board typically hears land-use cases such as the Soccer Association of Columbia's plan to build a soccer complex on land near Centennial Park, though it may include nearly any government decision that someone seeks to overturn. Zoning is controlled by the zoning Board, a separate body.

While the bill, sponsored by C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, has bipartisan council support with three other co-sponsors, it will take months to hire a lawyer for the job and make an impact.

Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, predicted it would take "60 to 90 days" to hire someone for the new job.

"It takes a while. Sometimes it's hard to fill positions," said Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican.

The County Council was to meet in closed session last night to decide whom to hire for a part-time zoning counsel position intended to help citizens groups navigate the intricacies of county land use regulations.

But the selection comes a year after passage of a council bill creating the job. Guzzone said the delay was caused by first-time errors that shouldn't be repeated.

Gray said he is confident after checking experiences in other counties with similar systems that allowing the examiner to hear all the cases first will speed things up.

"I think we have a responsibility to our citizens to expedite the cases," Gray said. Having the examiner hear only routine, noncontroversial cases has risks too, he noted.

"What's routine?" he asked, noting that some cases cannot be categorized until the hearing begins.

Robey pointed out that the examiner can hold hearings during the day, while the Board of Appeals, staffed with part-time citizen members, meets only in the evenings.

A professional, trained lawyer will help expedite hearings, Robey said.

"It's a trial-and-error thing," Guzzone said. "My position on all of these changes is that we'll implement it, see how it works and modify it if we need to. The bottom line is to improve the whole process."

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