Panel reports on 12 issues

Suggestions made to alert residents on `conditional uses'

Development process eyed

November 01, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

An advisory committee studying Howard County's development process recommended a list of modest steps yesterday designed to alert residents when something is proposed in their neighborhoods - and what to do about it - before the bulldozers show up.

The recommendations deal with "conditional uses," which are projects such as child-care centers, gas stations and senior housing that require permission from the county Board of Appeals. Among other changes, committee members want to require that developers meet with residents before submitting plans to the county.

The suggestions are far from an overhaul of the process, which has been criticized by some activists as confusing and stacked against the average citizen. But the committee, created by the County Council, wasn't asked to recommend an overhaul.

In its report, the panel said the proposed changes should help residents and make information more accessible "without adding unduly burdensome requirements."

"I think the recommendations are sound, and I think they will definitely increase public participation," said Helen Ruther, a committee member who sat on the county Planning Board from 1977 to 1992.

The County Council has not seen the report, but several councilmen said they expect that at least some of the recommendations will be introduced as legislation. A vote could come as early as January.

The diverse committee - made up of a dozen attorneys, activists and both current and former county officials - was created during the summer to make recommendations on 12 issues, many related to public notification.

Individually, members of the group had 20 additional suggestions. Some thought the county should provide a glossary of terms in the zoning regulations, make developers prove that their projects will not negatively affect nearby properties and require that all notice posters be designed so they're readable from afar - such as black lettering on a white background, instead of black on blue.

The committee will ask the County Council whether to continue meeting so it can vote on the extra ideas.

Among the recommendations that the advisory committee formally made to the council:

Permit opponents and supporters of proposed projects to question county employees who reviewed those proposals.

Require that development plans include a statement explaining whether the land is served by public or private water and sewage disposal, and how to contact the Howard County Health Department for more information.

Require that developers wait a year before asking for "enlargements" and "alterations" of newly approved projects - for instance, adding a carwash to a gas station - unless they can prove that the change wasn't "reasonably foreseeable" when the original plans were filed.

The committee decided not to offer a recommendation on whether to require that developers share their studies and documents with residents before making their case before the Board of Appeals. The County Council is considering legislation to create a hearing examiner position to review conditional-use cases first, and the committee believes the new step would offer residents an opportunity to hear all the facts.

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western Howard Republican, doesn't want the idea to be dropped. Often, he said, residents have difficulty cross-examining developers' experts because they have no opportunity to prepare.

"We have to make sure there's a level playing field," he said.

Angela Butler of Dayton, who wasn't on the committee but got a taste of the conditional-use process when a company asked to build a propane storage facility in her community, likes the idea of developers meeting with residents to explain proposed projects.

But she wishes the committee suggested more notification.

Under the committee's recommendation, developers would have to put posters on the land, send letters to adjoining property owners and notify the county, which would announce the meeting on its Web site.

"People within a two-mile radius of this place filing for a special exception should get a notification in the mail from the county," Butler said. "We pay taxes. That's what some of our taxes should be used for."

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