County's planning office regroups in 4 divisions

Reform effort results from public criticism

April 05, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County's planning and zoning officer, Denis D. Canavan, has reorganized his staff in an effort to reform a troubled department that in recent years has received failing grades from developers, builders and residents.

The reorganization, announced to staff members this week in a memorandum, creates four divisions in the planning office: long-range planning; zoning; environmental issues; and transportation.

Canavan, who came to the county two years ago when County Executive Janet S. Owens separated the Department of Planning and Code Enforcement, reviewed his plan with Owens and his supervisor, Land Use Officer Robert L. Walker. They strongly endorse the changes and are praising them as the first step in a departmental makeover that is long overdue.

"When I first came on board, I made it clear to all the directors that we had to make the system work," said Walker, who was chosen by Owens in August to oversee the departments of planning and zoning, public works, and inspections and permits. "I told them, `It's not working, and we have to make it better.'"

Walker, who has met recently with developers and builders to talk about problems in the county's land-use offices, added: "Hopefully, we can change this very bad reputation that we have had."

Owens, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year, hoped Canavan could turn around planning and zoning when she hired him away from Montgomery County in 2000.

"This has been developing for a long time, but I wanted him to clearly look at what he had and how to make it more responsive," Owens said yesterday. "This is simply an effort to be more publicly and internally responsible. ... I hope it helps everyone."

When Owens was elected in 1998, residents complained that county staff would send them through a confusing set of permit requirements, only to issue more requirements later. Builders complained that county code enforcement was inconsistent and that when violations were found, officials often gave preferential treatment to applicants with connections.

Developer Mark Levy, president of Rock Realty in Reisterstown, said Anne Arundel County has been afflicted with land-use problems for at least a decade. He recalled a project that received "100 percent" approval from the county and then ran into a snag when a fire inspector didn't like the site plan.

More recently, Levy said, he has noticed small improvements that give him reason to think that Walker, Canavan and other administrators are working to create a business-friendly organization.

"We are starting to see very positive changes," he said.

As part of Canavan's reorganization, several employees were promoted to lead the new divisions. Creation of the divisions is designed to put environmental and transportation issues on equal footing with planning and development.

Richard Josephson, planning administrator, has been named administrator of the long-range planning division, and Harvey S. Gold, transportation planner, is acting administrator of the transportation division.

Ginger Ellis, environmental services administrator, will lead the new environmental division, and Joseph J. Elbrich Jr., assistant director of the development division, becomes head of the zoning division.

In his memo to 110 employees, Canavan said he expects administrators to convene weekly staff meetings that focus on "product, productivity and delivery." He encouraged team leaders to "foster creative problem-solving."

"I believe this reorganization will effectively reposition the department to maintain a prominent leadership role in shaping the development of the county in the future," Canavan wrote. "I seek your support in assuring a smooth transition which will begin a new and exciting era for the department."

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