Zoning critical but slow process

Planning that began in 1997 may come to end this fall

`This intimately affects the people'

July 10, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

The most comprehensive zoning makeover of Anne Arundel County in a generation is starting to show its age even before completion, but county leaders predict that a process that began in 1997 will end this fall.

Much progress has been made since previous County Executive John G. Gary started an initiative that divided the county into 16 pieces and required each of those communities to devise a long-term land-use plan. Out of that work, county officials developed corresponding zoning maps.

The County Council, which is the final arbiter of this zoning revision, listened to testimony last week on the Lake Shore and the Pasadena/Marley Neck zoning maps. Those two pieces are among the five that are still up for deliberation.

For the past five years, council members have gone through numerous starts and stops in settling on plans for the southern, central and western portions of the county, yet they say the importance of the protracted task justifies the wait.

"This intimately affects the people we represent," said County Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican. "The budget is the 800-pound gorilla in the corner, but this [the zoning] also has a big impact.

"We can make people millionaires with one zoning change, or we can take away their livelihoods," he said.

But council members agree that the process of approving small area plans and zoning maps could be streamlined. Planners in the late 1990s thought the zoning makeover could be completed within two years, said County Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican.

The county "should consolidate and streamline this process. ... Community involvement is very important, but timeliness is also important," he said.

Comprehensive zoning of the county is typically revisited every decade, at the prerogative of the county executive. Before the current process, the most recent evaluation occurred in one year in the late 1980s, with the county divided based on County Council districts. But the current re-examination of zoning and land use most closely mirrors the work done during a five-year period in the 1970s.

County Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who was brought in by current County Executive Janet S. Owens in 2002, has been critical of small-area plans, saying they have created as much confusion as order. As it stands, the review process gives local communities a say over the future look of the neighborhoods.

Rutter has said he would prefer an approach that addresses the overall nature and pace of growth in the county.

One plus in the current zoning process for residents and businesses seeking zoning changes is that they get to directly petition decision-makers, rather than go through an often lengthy and expensive administrative appeal to fight for a rule exception.

One such example in Dillon's district is Kurtz's Beach, a 72-year-old banquet facility on the Chesapeake Bay shore. The business has nonconforming zoning, so it cannot get the permits it needs to make improvements. Such companies usually also have difficulty getting financing.

"If I wanted to put in a sidewalk, I couldn't do that," said John Mason, who co-owns the company's catering business.

Critics contend that loosening zoning rules for such businesses would give them license to become more commercial, a move that would run counter to small-area community plans.

Dillon said that rezoning such longtime businesses would give them the ability to make improvements, an effect that would rub off positively on nearby neighborhoods. He said he would seek to change Kurtz's zoning.

"We've been here. We will be here," Mason said. "We just wanted the proper zoning."

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