Howard favors rich developers over its citizens

Metro Journal

October 10, 2001|By HOWARD WEINSTEIN

HOW MANY developers does it take to level a forest? One -- and a zoning department that lets him do it.

And that's no joke. I know, because I recently earned battle scars fighting over the future of my corner of Elkridge, where Route 100 meets Route 103.

Howard County's planning and zoning process gives unfair advantage to wealthy developers and handicaps opponents. Rules and procedures are so arcane only veteran developers and attorneys can master them.

The current Rules of Procedure booklet is incomplete, unclear and hard to find. Astonishingly, zoning decisions aren't determined by specific standards. This makes meaningless the "burden of proof" required of developers since it invites arbitrary decisions based on impressions, not facts, and makes it virtually impossible for opponents to refute a developer's case.

"Quasi-judicial" zoning hearings disorient the uninitiated, awarding tactical advantages to experienced attorneys. It's ridiculous to expect citizen-opponents to become instant experts. And it's blatantly discriminatory to penalize those who can't afford an attorney.

The system actually deprives citizens of relevant access to their county representatives and prevents County Council members from protecting their constituents' interests. Before filing a case, developers may lobby council members all they want. But once a case starts, council members -- who are also the zoning board --- cannot discuss it outside the hearings or answer citizens' calls for help. Doesn't that sound unconstitutional?

A developer's motivating incentive is profit -- possibly millions from a completed project. Win or lose, development attorneys get paid. Zoning board members get council salaries. Even alleged "expert witnesses" get cash or considerations for often-ludicrous testimony meant only to bolster their patrons' cases. But no one pays citizen-opponents (or "chumps") for taking time away from families and jobs to defend community integrity and value. Fair? Hardly.

If this system ever worked, it doesn't now -- not when most available land adjoins existing communities, provoking battles when developers attempt to rezone residential property to commercial or retail. Even previously planned development, executed without regard for existing homes (as on Snowden River Parkway in Long Reach), generates outrage.

If the County Council resists correcting a system biased toward developers, its recently appointed Reform Committee will be wasting its time. And the zoning board and citizens will waste their time at contentious hearings where truth and balance are the casualties.

The system must become less adversarial. Developers, knowing wealth and procedural advantages will help them win most confrontations, have no motivation to compromise. So, simply requiring meetings with community groups won't help unless facilitated by a county-authorized mediator. And developers should be given incentives to encourage accommodation.

I'm a native of quintessential suburbia -- Long Island, N.Y. -- much of it ruined by unbridled development. Thanks to James Rouse's vision, Howard County had a chance to be better. Are developers too greedy to understand that green space preservation gives this area a grace and beauty uncommon in surburbia? If their answer is the pillaging of Long Reach, and Elkridge, then James Rouse must be spinning in his grave.

Without common sense from developers, we should demand it from a timid zoning bureaucracy seemingly incapable of curbing developers bent on clear-cutting the county for profit. Developers won't flee prestigious Howard County because they're required to preserve tall shade trees bordering a property. Such compromise allows developers to build, forces them to build better and reduces negative impact on communities.

If County Council members are unable to exercise common-sense leadership, they should be replaced next election by representatives who understand that they serve a quarter-million residents, not a few dozen developers. Howard County's quality of life hangs precariously in the balance.

Today's writer

Howard Weinstein is president of the Pembroke Homeowners Association in Elkridge.

Metro Journal provides a forum for examining issues and events in the Baltimore region and welcomes contributions from readers.

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