Panel urges improvements in development review

Aim is to simplify an arcane process

Columbia

February 01, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Residents who step through the looking glass into Howard County's complex real estate development process and find their heads spinning with jabberwocky terms like "comprehensive sketch plan," take heart: Help appears to be on the way.

A group of activists, attorneys, citizen planners and former officials is asking the county to offer a brochure that would walk you through the steps and define the vocabulary.

Along with that suggestion, the panel - known as the Board Procedures Committee - is recommending six modest changes to how officials review land development proposals.

"The idea is to try to [make] this more open and more accessible to the public," said Edward Cochran, chairman of the committee and a former Howard County executive. "To the average person, it's pretty complicated."

County Council members convened the panel last year to consider a variety of procedural issues related to land development, and the committee offered a list of recommendations in November.

But committee members also had their own ideas for changes. They decided to keep meeting and give the council additional suggestions. The group finished the bulk of its work Wednesday and will put the final touches on a report next week.

Among the new recommendations:

Permit expert witnesses for developers and opponents to send letters announcing their intent to testify rather than requiring them to sign up in person at the first hearing.

Allow expert witnesses to offer rebuttal testimony for developers or opponents, even if they had not signed up at the start.

Encourage land-use boards to increase the use of "stipulated facts" - information both sides agree is accurate - so people don't have to offer hours of testimony to prove those points.

Eliminate an advertising requirement. Currently, people who appeal administrative land-use decisions - such as whether to give waivers to development requirements - have to pay for newspaper ads publicizing their appeal.

Committee members did not unanimously agree on that last recommendation. They debated the idea for more than an hour, weighing the cost savings versus the impact on public notice.

"It makes it more difficult to appeal," said panel member Susan Gray, an attorney who represents residents fighting development. "Depending on the papers you use, you may be talking about $600 in ad costs."

Joan Lancos, a panel member who is also chairwoman of the county Planning Board, agreed with Gray that the notices are expensive and often go unread. But the proposal worried her in part because it would eliminate a source of public information.

"It seems like the opposite of what we're doing in every other condition," she said.

County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. said that about half of those who appeal his department's administrative decisions are developers and half are opponents.

E. Alexander Adams, a Howard County land-use attorney who was not on the panel, said yesterday that the recommendations "have a lot of merit."

He especially likes the idea of allowing expert witnesses to send a letter expressing their intent to testify. Making them come to the first hearing to sign up seems to him like "a gotcha rule that made no sense and cost everybody a lot of money" - since many times the witnesses would have to be paid a second time to come when they could actually testify.

"I think it makes the process simpler," he said of the committee's recommendations. "It shouldn't be more difficult. ... If people feel the system is stacked against them, that increases the level of frustration."

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