Council targets zoning practice

An easier standard for government at issue

In the `public interest'

Hearing on exempting schools is postponed

November 27, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council is poised to make official a longstanding practice to employ an easier standard for granting zoning changes to construct schools and other government buildings.

Now, governmental agencies, such as the school system, do not have to meet the strict standards used by the county Board of Appeals when asking for construction variances for its buildings, as other entities do. They deal only with the County Council, which has a much more lenient criterion: that the variance be in the "public interest."

That standard was heretofore implied, but the council will make it official Monday night by adding to the county code wording that says as much - if the five members adopt a bill introduced by council Chairman Guy Guzzone.

"The County Council desires to reaffirm the original legislative purpose and expressly set forth the standard that it has applied consistently and historically in deciding a request for a variance for a governmental use," the bill states.

At a work session Tuesday night, Councilman Allan H. Kittleman expressed concern about using a different standard for government buildings.

"The only struggle I do have is that I feel bad, or I feel unusual, that the government gets an easier shake than private citizens do," he said. "There's something inside me that says that's not fair."

Paul T. Johnson, the deputy county solicitor, said council members had been granting variances that way for years. If they had not, Johnson said, needed buildings - such as schools, pumping stations, communications towers and parks - would have been "delayed for a long period of time."

Meanwhile, a Howard Circuit Court hearing to determine what standards the County Council must use when exempting schools from zoning regulations was postponed indefinitely yesterday so the judge could finish a jury trial.

Circuit Judge James B. Dudley announced the delay 15 minutes before the hearing was set to begin - before Johnson, the council's attorney, had arrived.

"We'll reschedule this as promptly as we can," Dudley promised the two attorneys present: Allen Dyer, who represents the citizens group that sued the County Council, and Richard B. Talkin, who represents the Board of Education, which is asking to become a party in the case.

"We've filed a motion to intervene," Talkin said. The judge has not ruled on the request.

If the council passes its bill, a contrary ruling by Dudley saying the legislative body had to require stricter standards from the school system would override the council legislation, though it could still be applied to other governmental bodies.

If that were to happen, it would be the second time in a year that the Howard school system was required to meet stricter standards than other governmental bodies.

In October, a two-year law went into effect taking away the school board's ability to convene executive-function meetings, which are not covered by the state's Open Meetings Act requirements for public notice and keeping minutes. Other elected officials are able to call such sessions at will.

"There are counties that do it the right way," Dyer said, pointing to Kent County, which requires its schools meet the same regulations as all other buildings. "Howard County should be one of them."

Dudley granted the hearing in October after ruling against a group fighting the Marriottsville placement of a high school. The residents claim the site is inadequate and unsafe and the building would be an eyesore. School system representatives steadfastly disagree, saying the site is the best they could find and fully meets their needs.

Construction on the site began about a month ago, said William Brown, director of school planning.

"We intend to open in August [2005]," Brown said yesterday.

But the residents group, operating under the name Citizens for Adequate School Facilities, is hoping otherwise. It sued the County Council in Circuit Court this summer - claiming it improperly told the school system it was OK to make the school taller and closer to the road than normal - in an effort to get school representatives to find another location.

But it didn't work. In October, Dudley issued an order stating that no person or group had the right to second guess the council's decision. He also allowed for the hearing, however.

If the school system had to comply with Board of Appeals standards, it would have to show:

That the alterations are necessary because of odd topography.

That the variances will not "alter the essential character of the neighborhood."

That they are the minimum required to provide relief.

That the school system has not created the need for the variance by choosing a poor site.

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