Bill targets violations of environmental rules

Property owners would face quicker fines

May 31, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

Looking to crack down on environmental violations during home construction, Baltimore County government officials are moving to assess fines more quickly.

The county issues hundreds of citations a year to property owners who build homes on wetlands, damage streambeds or knock down protected trees. Most of the problems are corrected, but for the rest, the county must take the violators to District Court to issue a fine, a process that can take months.

A bill scheduled to be introduced at Monday's County Council meeting would empower a county hearing officer to review the citations and determine fines.

Violators who fail to correct the problems would face fines within weeks, said David A.C. Carroll, the county's environmental chief.

"People are becoming more and more aware of development when it happens around them and the impact it has on their neighborhood," Carroll said. But county officials are "significantly hampered in our ability to carry through on people who refuse to comply with violation notices. A lot of people expect us to swoop in, levy this enormous fine, and the problem is fixed because we have this hammer, and I tell them we don't."

The proposed law is being introduced by Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr. on behalf of County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s administration and would face a vote in July.

Most environmental violations carry a daily fine of $500, Carroll said.

The idea behind the proposed law is to deter violations, not collect money, he said.

Under the proposal, a violator would be given a citation describing the problem and ways to correct it. Alleged violators would be able to request a hearing before an officer from county Department of Permits and Development Management to appeal the citation.

Environmental violations would follow the same track as building, zoning and housing code violations, which have been reviewed by the officer since 1997.

Carroll estimated that the hearing officer would review between 300 and 400 environmental violations a year.

Timothy M. Kotroco, the director of county permits and development management, said he would relieve the hearing officer of other tasks so that he would not be overburdened by the additional cases.

County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina said he supports the bill.

"The problem has been that environment violations have not been a priority of the district court," said Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat. "By doing this we can adjudicate quicker."

Bud Herb, president of the Linover Improvement Association in eastern Baltimore County, said that while he supports speeding the process for assessing fines, he questions how many fines actually would be issued by the hearing officer.

"It sounds good on paper -- they're making the process shorter -- but I question what the actual process does. I don't see it doing too much," Herb said.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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