Panel defines future post

Group outlines job of hearing examiner for Board of Appeals

Council reviews proposals

Under expected bill, most zoning cases fall to new position

January 21, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A set of rules to define the job of Howard County's long-awaited Board of Appeals hearing examiner will be introduced as legislation to the County Council next month, though the examiner isn't likely to actually be hired and begin work until later this year.

The part-time hearing examiner is expected to become a key player in the effort to make Howard's land-use regulations more understandable and fair for residents and developers.

County voters approved the position in November 2000 to speed and simplify cases about conditional uses and administrative appeals.

The County Council recently reviewed proposed rules that would send to the examiner nearly every case that now goes to the appeals board. The only exceptions, said Assistant County Solicitor Thomas Carbo, would be appeals of decisions issued by administrative boards, such as the Animal Matters Board.

The rules were produced by a committee headed by County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat. The council first considered legislation to officially create the hearing examiner position in September, but it delayed action to have the committee create the job's rules.

"I really am excited about the whole hearing examiner thing. It will really streamline things," said Joan Lancos, Planning Board chairwoman and member of Gray's committee who attended the council's recent discussion.

The county has hired a lawyer part time to help explain zoning cases to community groups and keep all parties informed.

In Howard, the County Council doubles as the Zoning Board. Most Board of Appeals cases involve requests for conditional uses of already zoned land. They are often routine but sometimes contentious -- such as a case about a large day care center or the recent Soccer Association of Columbia request for a new complex near Centennial Park.

With board cases now scheduled into April, the county hopes the examiner can speed the proc ess in a slightly less formal setting and help reduce the board's case load. The examiner's decisions may be appealed to the board.

The appeals board would listen to each case in full, as if it were the first hearing.

Any hearing before the examiner would have to be advertised for at least 30 days. Technical reports would have to be made available to the public 30 days before being presented at a hearing.

Any substantive change to a proposal would require two weeks' notice to owners of nearby property and could cause a delay. The examiner may issue an oral decision, but it would not be official until put in writing.

One point County Council members discussed last week was what time of day the hearings would be held. The proposed rules give scheduling power to the examiner.

Lancos said daytime hearings can be valuable because county staff members are available to answer questions.

"If an issue is important enough to people, they will attend a daytime hearing," Lancos said.

Board of Appeals Chairman Robert C. Sharps said that if anyone is upset, the case would probably be appealed anyway.

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, said he worries that someone could try to schedule a contentious case during the day to escape scrutiny by opponents. Gray responded that "if it's a real controversial case, we'll hold it at night."

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