Council reaches a defining moment

Planners seeking to take `waiver' from zoning vernacular

October 19, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Maybe a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but propose a change in zoning terms and people get upset.

Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning officials want to stop issuing "waivers" for subdivisions and start calling the process "alternative compliance" instead, arguing that it is more precise. The county's Republican councilmen are convinced that "waiver" is right and the name change is a misleading bit of public relations.

It could be seen as a symptom of Howard County's obsession with land use: Not only are planners proposing a name change for an arcane zoning regulation, but people actually care.

And yet both sides insist that the words matter because they create an immediate perception for citizens - right or wrong - about how proposed developments are handled by the county.

"We're trying to clarify," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director. "There's a lot of negative connotations when the Department of Planning and Zoning grants a `waiver.'"

He thinks "alternative compliance," on the other hand, "sends a clear message to both the development community and residents of the community that we don't waive things, we find alternative ways of doing things. ... Probably 98 percent of the cases have some conditions attached."

County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, who represents western Howard, said he understands that, but the name change still does not sit well with him. He hears it and thinks of the euphemistic language made famous by the book 1984.

"It strikes me as a George Orwellian response," he said, referring to the book's author. "Doublespeak."

Kittleman and County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City intend to introduce an amendment so that "waiver" stays "waiver." The council is expected to vote Nov. 5 on the zoning package that includes the proposed name change.

"The re-label ... skirts what is happening there," Merdon said. "Somebody truly is coming in for a waiver" of the zoning rules when they apply, he said.

The county's planning department received 141 waiver petitions in the fiscal year that ended in June, a typical number for recent years, according to the department. With one exception, any requirement in the county subdivision regulations can be waived, with justification, but the common requests deal with issues such as deadlines, stream buffers, driveways and sidewalks, Rutter said.

For instance, sidewalks are required. But some small subdivisions are planned in the middle of older neighborhoods that do not have any, and Rutter said it does not make sense to have a couple of hundred feet of sidewalk unconnected to any other.

The planning department grants most waiver petitions. Rutter said that is because developers call before applying to find out whether their requests are likely to be approved and don't usually risk the $450 filing fee if the answer is likely to be no.

He argues that the name debate is political, fueled by council members who want to make an issue out of the planning department granting waivers.

"When we did the new storm-water regulations, we changed `waivers' to `alternative compliance,' and the council approved it," Rutter said. "It's exactly the same situation."

But Kittleman said that unlike the current proposal, the name change in the storm-water management regulations was not brought to his attention.

"It was a very large piece of legislation, and I just didn't notice it," he said. "Maybe we need to change that one, too."

J. Carroll Holzer, a land-use attorney in Towson who represents community groups statewide, also thinks the name change is an attempt to "put more sugar on the sugar-coated pill as it goes down."

Legal ramifications also are possible, he said. A county could rename a common zoning process and then try to argue that the standard criteria for approval do not apply any more, he said.

"I'm very suspicious when government acts to try to cloud the zoning definitions," Holzer said.

Residents are concerned about what the terms mean.

"There needs to be a glossary that has all the terminologies in it and the definitions thereof so that everyone - including board members, the petitioners and the protestants - are all on the same page," said Stu Kohn, a North Laurel resident involved in the fight against two large, mixed-use developments in southern Howard.

Zoning Board members debated many nights the meaning of "compatible" during hearings on the Maple Lawn Farms development, he said. "A lot of things are subjective," Kohn noted.

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