No `special exception' found for `waiver'

Zoning terminology stands

council can't agree on alternative

Howard County

November 08, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A waiver is still a waiver in Howard County.

Some members of the County Council don't like using that word to describe the deals sometimes struck with subdivision developers seeking relief from normal zoning rules. But finding the right alternative has proved daunting.

Planners think "waiver" is inaccurate because the developers are usually required to meet specially shaped terms in lieu of the usual regulations. They proposed that the name be changed to "alternative compliance."

But a majority of the five-member County Council decided Monday evening that alternative compliance would sometimes be just as wrong. Occasionally, what developers win really is a waiver.

A debate over terms could seem like a tempest in a teapot, but planners and politicians were actually battling over public perception. When the county grants waivers, it appears to some that developers are being favored, while requiring alternative compliance can sound as if the county is being tough but reasonable.

Leaving waiver undisturbed left most council members dissatisfied. Now, they are wavering on the issue.

"It's probably something that will be revisited in the future," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge.

He was one of two council members who objected to the name change originally. Yesterday, he said that he could see how each term is accurate in certain situations.

When planners decide that a developer does not have to build sidewalks in front of a small subdivision in a sidewalk-less neighborhood, they've granted a waiver, he said. When planners require a developer to do something instead of something else, that really is "alternative compliance," he believes.

But with a lot of legislation to vote on Monday night along with the zoning name, the council didn't have time to work out an amendment to the amendment, Merdon said.

Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said last month that his department proposed "alternative compliance" to clarify that planners are not simply throwing rules out the window.

"Probably 98 percent of the cases have some conditions attached," he said.

Merdon and fellow Republican Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, who represents western Howard, argued that the proposal was a deceptive public relations ploy.

In the end, every council member except Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, decided that "waiver" is preferable.

Merdon thought the Department of Planning and Zoning might want to write a new proposal that would use both names, but that appears unlikely. Deputy Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin thinks her department will let "waiver" stand.

"I think what matters to the citizens is that when they look at a particular case, they'll be able to see in the file whether there was an alternative design approved," she said. "I'm not sure whether it's critical how it is named."

This was not the first time planners have asked for a change in terminology. In May, the council agreed to rename another development process - the one that allows landowners to build certain things, such as gas stations, only when permission is granted by the Board of Appeals - from "special exception" to "conditional use."

Merdon agreed with that switch because he thinks the new name is more precise: If they meet the conditions, developers can build.

In that name change Kittleman sees a potential solution for the waiver dilemma. Why not call it a special exception, he asks? It strikes him as a nearly dead-on match with what the planning department actually does when it grants waivers."`Special exception' is available now," he said, laughing.

But Merdon said that term is infused with meaning for activists, attorneys and developers - so much so that some people are still calling conditional uses by that old name.

Perhaps the term should not be pulled out of retirement to do a new job, he suggested.

"I think it would probably be even more confusing, not only for the public but for lawyers and the courts," he said.

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