Deadlocks possible on Board of Appeals

Vacancy will create opportunity for tie votes for a month

January 10, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

People who want to win approval for unconventional developments in Howard County will have to meet a higher standard soon - but only for about a month.

One Howard County Board of Appeals member is leaving the state in a few weeks to escape spiraling property taxes, and the County Council cannot appoint a replacement until March at the earliest. During that period, people hoping to win variances, appeal land-use decisions and expand churches must convince a larger percentage of the board - three out of four members, instead of three out of five.

"Hopefully, we won't end up with a bunch of 2-2 ties," said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county's planning director.

The board has deadlocked on several occasions in the past year, but only on straw votes with one member missing - and that person arrived at the next meeting to break the tie. For next month and possibly into March, there won't be a fifth person to break deadlocks. Any zoning request that receives a 2-2 vote will be denied, Rutter said.

Applications for the board position, which had to be postmarked by Saturday, could continue to arrive this week. Council members need to set up interviews and hold a public hearing before they can fill the seat.

The gap "concerns me, but it's not something we have any power over," said Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a west Howard Republican. "We can't forget that we need to have a good replacement. We don't want to rush to judgment. In the long run, it's probably better to go through the process."

Board member Bill Waff, who is moving from Savage to Connecticut around the end of the month, submitted a letter of resignation Dec. 2 but promised to continue attending hearings until he leaves.

He and his wife, Ellen, said they felt forced to move because their property tax assessment jumped in 1999 from $168,220 to $425,250, more than doubling their annual tax bill, just as Waff lost his defense industry job. Townhouses are planned for their 6.7-acre property.

The term for Waff's seat expires at the end of 2005. He joined the board in 1999 as the replacement for the last member who left before his term was up, Donald Messenger.

Waff said he cannot predict if any cases scheduled for next month are likely to split the board. Some zoning requests seem cut-and-dried but are not, he noted.

"I don't know. You never know," he said. "There's always surprises."

Board Chairman Robert C. Sharps can think of a potential alternative to letting a case die in a 2-2 tie: If a proposed project proves controversial, board members could postpone an official vote until the new member is seated, he said. That person would listen to audio tapes of the hearings he or she missed.

In any case, deadlocks are possible. The panel had at least two last year.

The board tied just a few weeks ago during a straw vote on plans for a 52-acre site in Ellicott City that the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County wants to turn into the largest privately owned soccer complex in Maryland.

Waff was expected to cast the deciding vote - he was out of town during the December meeting - but Sharps changed his mind and voted to approve the complex. (The plans passed Tuesday night, 4-1.)

In May, the board tied 2-2 on a proposal for a 200-child day care center in Ellicott City. Sharps, who could not attend that night, arrived at the next meeting and tipped the scales to 3-2 against the project.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, acknowledged that stalemates are possible during the panel's stint with four members. But he said that is possible any time board members decide not to finish their terms.

"We're going to do our best to make the appointment as quickly as possible," he said.

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