Activist selected to enforce zoning

Naming Ridgely is seen as pledge to slow growth

Democrat is ex-political foe

January 31, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

In a move they described as evidence of their commitment to growth control, the Carroll commissioners appointed yesterday a former political opponent, slow-growth activist Neil Ridgely, to be their chief enforcer of county zoning laws.

Ridgely, 53, is known as one of the county's most outspoken advocates of slowing residential growth and beefing up environmental protection, someone who has fought developers on land-use policy from his days as a county employee in the early 1990s through his unsuccessful candidacy for commissioner in the fall.

Although the Democrat ran against the three Republicans in that election, all said they wanted Ridgely as their zoning administrator because of his strong convictions about land-use issues.

"Neil is incorruptible, he's passionate, and everybody knows where he stands," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

The county didn't always enforce its zoning rules under previous administrations, said Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. He said that won't be a problem with Ridgely at the helm.

"Neil is a guy who can reinforce the statements we always hear from staff that we have good laws and all we need to do is enforce them," Jones said.

Ridgely's job, which has been vacant for more than two years and will pay $55,000 a year, encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, from ensuring that people don't illegally post signs to helping the commissioners craft new adequate facilities laws. He said he will focus on paring the list of 54 conditional zoning uses that the commissioners believe have allowed retail stores to consume land intended for industry.

Ridgely said yesterday that he was impressed the commissioners had ignored partisanship to ask him to take the job.

"I think it speaks volumes about their intention to bring meaningful zoning back to this county," he said.

The hiring is the latest in a series of high-profile staff changes by the commissioners, who fired their top assistant, R. Patrick Hill, during their first week in office. They replaced Hill with former budget Director Steven D. Powell and brought Steve Horn back from Frederick County to his former job as county planning director.

Ridgely had said after losing badly in the November election that he would retreat from his interest in county affairs.

"But the bad taste only stayed in my mouth for about a week," he said yesterday.

Ridgely has engaged in many battles with county leaders, developers and property-rights activists over the years. He produced a weekly e-mail newsletter that was highly critical of former Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier and of the county's planning commission. Dell referred to him as a troublemaker and during last year's campaign, conservative Republican commissioner candidate Ed Primoff often said he found Ridgely the most mean-spirited of the slow-growth advocates.

Ridgely's combative spirit manifested during an earlier term with the county, when he was in charge of enforcing new county laws aimed at making development more environmentally and neighborhood friendly. He continued to hound developers when he was Hampstead's town manager and chief zoning administrator between 1995 and 1999. He resigned that job after an argument with Mayor Christopher M. Nevin over the town insurance company's role in a collision involving a town police car and the mayor's personal vehicle.

Since 1999, he has worked as a consultant with Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, a nonprofit environmental group.

Ridgely, who will start work Feb. 24, said the commissioners first contacted him about the newly revived zoning administrator's job Tuesday. He accepted the next day.

"I wouldn't have taken the job if I hadn't been assured that these commissioners are very sincere in their commitment to zoning enforcement," he said.

Ridgely said that while the job might draw him into conflict with old adversaries in the development community, he will try to avoid contention.

"I believe they understand I need to be as fair about administering the law as possible, but that's where it ends," he said. "I don't intend to bend the law."

The commissioners said that although they want Ridgely to enforce zoning laws strictly, they want to offer residents and developers a grace period, during which Ridgely can educate them about the specifics of the county's zoning code.

"There's been such a lackadaisical approach toward zoning violations in the past, that I think we really need to give people a chance to know this change is coming and that things will be different," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who criticized previous boards for not properly enforcing zoning laws.

"I'm not going to go out and start stomping people," Ridgely said.

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