Balto. Co. executive ponders nominee

Smith plan for Schmidt as permits chief questioned

`We're just in the process'

April 20, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Amid criticism from community activists, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s administration has hedged on its plan to nominate Lawrence E. Schmidt as head of Permits and Development Management.

Since word first circulated this month that Smith intended to nominate Schmidt to the post, which is responsible for zoning and code enforcement and permitting, community activists have lobbied council members to oppose the nomination. They claim Schmidt has displayed a pro-development bias and a lack of respect for community concerns in his decade as zoning commissioner.

Two weeks ago, Smith senior aide George Shoenberger called council members to tell them Smith planned to nominate Schmidt. A week ago, the executive's chief of staff, Gregory Pecoraro, confirmed the plan.

But Friday, county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said: "In response to the overall question of confirming whether his name is going up, [Smith is] in the process of discussing the position of PADM director with the County Council."

"We're not really backpedaling on this or moving forward," Kobler added. "We're just in the process."

Schmidt's most prominent ruling in recent years is likely his opinion that he could not consider the traffic effects of approved but not yet built developments when deciding whether to allow Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church to build a 3,000-seat sanctuary in rural Granite. Schmidt approved the $10 million project.

But some of those who have gone before him over the years accuse him of routinely looking contemptuously on evidence from community groups while giving credence to the testimony of developers' lawyers and paid experts.

"Mr. Schmidt is an honorable man, but he's been in the political game too long," said Roz Roddy, a community activist from Granite.

"They are a clique, this group of people who comprise Baltimore County's development process. They've got it down to a science. They use the same traffic people, they use the same attorneys and it's like an already-decided little clique. They all communicate beautifully with each other and they don't accept the facts presented to them by lay people."

Smith's plan to nominate Schmidt to replace Arnold Jablon, who will retire this summer, already faced some criticism from members of the County Council.

Smith asked them months ago for suggestions for someone to lead the department, which controls zoning and code enforcement and permitting, and nearly all of them suggested Raymond S. "Rick" Wisnom, head of the code enforcement division.

Instead, Smith informed them two weeks ago that he intended to nominate Schmidt, even though he had never discussed the idea with them.

Council members said that since the plan was first reported, they have received numerous telephone calls and e-mails about Schmidt. The callers overwhelmingly opposed the nomination.

"I've gotten feedback from people that I normally do not hear from ... not only those involved in community associations as officers but also as individuals within communities," said Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat.

"I've gotten many e-mails, all of them requesting that another individual be reviewed for the position."

Schmidt declined to discuss his situation.

"I haven't been nominated, and I could potentially remain zoning commissioner, and I don't want to comment about any particular people who are parties that I may deal with or not deal with," he said.

Similarly, a number of community association and advocacy group leaders declined to comment about Schmidt on the record, saying they didn't want to alienate a man who would have significant power over the zoning process -- whether he continues as zoning commissioner or becomes permits and development management director.

Jack Dillon, director of the Valleys Planning Council, said he has received a number of phone calls about Schmidt, and generally, the callers have complained that he is pro-development, not pro-community.

"They're not happy," Dillon said.

Michael Vivirito, president of the Bowley's Quarters Improvement Association, said he has seen Schmidt act "more like a dictator than a commissioner."

"It's almost like he looks down on you," Vivirito said.

Not all community group leaders criticized Schmidt. Don Wright, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said he has always known Schmidt to be "extremely fair."

"He's very good at getting the facts out at his hearings, and when all is said and done, you pretty well know what the outcome is going to be," Wright said. "I have a lot of respect for him."

Emily Wolfson, a Liberty Road-area activist who has appeared before Schmidt on behalf of a variety of groups and as an individual, said she has always found him fair.

Moreover, she said, his experience makes him the perfect choice for the job.

"You need someone who's had the experience of hearing both the developers and the community," Wolfson said. "If you put someone in that job that hasn't heard both sides, they're going to be hard-pressed to be equitable."

And Donna Spicer, a community activist from Loch Raven, said the criticism of Schmidt is misplaced.

"I think he is a very good choice. I have been before him on multiple occasions over the last nine years," she said.

"I have always found him very patient. He always explains the process, he always listens to what you have to say. I have never felt I have been treated unfairly."

What people don't understand, Spicer said, is that the development regulations and county code provide a narrow framework for the commissioners to work within -- if a development meets the requirements, the commissioner has no choice but to approve it.

"It's the development process that's broken. It is not the commissioners," Spicer said.

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