Cleaning up Howard County's zoning mess

July 05, 2005|By Howard Weinstein

HOWARD COUNTY'S planning and zoning system is becoming a toxic wasteland of toothless regulations, timid enforcement and tarnished quality of life because of politicians resistant to change and developers who never met a tree they couldn't bulldoze. And that's the good news.

The bad news is, it's getting worse.

Cosmetic nip-and-tuck reform won't do. This outdated, developer-friendly system, created during bygone days of wide-open spaces, needs an extreme makeover.

In 12 years of zoning hearings, my neighbors and I have learned that developers and lawyers say the darnedest things. They use their knowledge and experience to exploit every loophole, hamstring opposition, distort reality and conceal facts that might hurt their cases. They summon alleged "expert witnesses" who are truly expert at just one thing: fabricating bogus "studies" that deliver only information favorable to the developers who pay for them.

For example, there was the property owner who justified asking for apartment zoning by claiming there were no apartments available in an area that actually has thousands of units in multiple complexes with constant vacancies. Or the lawyer who claimed you can't build an office park without restaurants.

Most citizens who innocently enter this twilight zone emerge convinced that the system coddles big developers and penalizes outsiders foolhardy enough to participate.

The first problem is having a five-man elected County Council that also serves as the Zoning Board. When legislators double as regulators, their zoning decisions can't help but be filtered through a partisan political prism. And councilmen who are allowed under the system to get campaign contributions from developers should not be making zoning decisions affecting those same developers. The door to abuse is wide open.

A system built on inherent conflict of interest is just plain dumb and strips zoning decisions of the legitimacy needed for residents to accept them.

That's what led to the recent petition drive to delay implementation of phase two of the county's comprehensive rezoning circus and bring it up as a 2006 referendum, with the goal of overturning dozens of rezoning decisions.

The petition effort may have been triggered by one unpopular decision to permit expansion of an Ellicott City church. But it succeeded because previously isolated residents concerned about local issues all over the county were drawn together and saw firsthand (many for the first time) that the process is a mess. Comprehensive rezoning poured many small simmering pots into one big boiling cauldron.

We are fed up with capricious, illogical, dysfunctional zoning. Here are eight common-sense suggestions about how it can be improved:

Create an independent Zoning Board.

Scrap comprehensive rezoning, which is now unmanageable.

Dump the current counterproductive adversarial system that regularly pits small community groups against wealthy developers. Replace it with a consensus-based process, including mediation, to encourage opposing parties to reach compromise agreements before zoning requests come before the Zoning Board.

Create incentives for developers so that the new system can save them time and money.

Don't grant rezoning without a site plan.

Exclude from hearings all traffic and other "technical studies" commissioned by developers and development attorneys. Such reports are biased and contribute nothing to intelligent zoning decisions. Instead, objective technical studies should be generated by government agencies.

Require more preservation of mature trees at development sites.

Set more rigorous rules for managing development, protecting communities and demanding a higher standard of quality from developers. That burden is the government's responsibility; that's what we pay taxes for. Developers enamored with prestige and profit won't flee Howard County because they're told to toe the line.

Howard Weinstein is an author and a former president of the Pembrooke Homeowners Association in Elkridge.

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