Zoning process targeted

4 council bills' aim is to give residents a greater voice in land use

July 02, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Howard County Council Democrats have submitted a package of four zoning bills they say will help residents participate more effectively in land-use changes and make Zoning Board cases less contentious through the use of voluntary mediation in some cases.

But the package is getting a cool reception from some in an election year when development resentment is a major issue and two council members are vying for the county executive's job.

"I believe that because it's an election year doesn't mean I should stop doing my job," said Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat and a co-sponsor who is running for county executive.

The bills, he said, "move us in the direction of giving citizens and communities a stronger voice in the process."

The council's two Republicans see it very differently.

"It's a political-year stunt," said western county Republican Charles C. Feaga, who often favors development interests.

Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican also running for county executive, called mediation "a false solution," that doesn't conform with state law.

"This package of bills is nothing more than window dressing to cover up [Democrats'] poor voting record on zoning issues," he said.

Merdon was the only council member to vote against the omnibus zoning bill known as "Comp Lite" that was petitioned to referendum by a citizens group.

The Democrats' bills would allow the Zoning Board - which is made up of the County Council members - to suggest voluntary mediation in some cases, and would require planners and developers to provide staff and traffic reports earlier and post larger signs on properties being considered for a zoning change. It would also ensure more convenient public meetings.

In cases in which mediation is suggested and used, the results would be a nonbinding recommendation. The board would make the ultimate decision, the bill says, and if no agreement is reached in 45 days, mediation would end. Those seeking a zoning change would bear the costs.

Mediation also could be useful in cases in which the Zoning Board must approve plans for a mixed-use or senior development in which zoning is not an issue, said Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who is another co-sponsor, along with Calvin Ball, an east Columbia-Jessup Democrat.

"We can't ultimately change the case law that establishes the way these [zoning] hearings are held. We can bring the parties together," Guzzone said.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, said the proposed earlier deadlines for making reports public could slow the scheduling of cases, and sign postings could cause a problem during comprehensive rezoning, but "I understand the desire" for changes.

The Democrats recently backed off their primary zoning thrust - a proposal to transform the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process, after citizens groups criticized it as too big a change to do quickly in an election year.

But the sponsors argued that the bills slated for introduction tomorrow night would help.

"It's really pretty significant in terms of citizens' ability to prepare a case," Guzzone said about requiring that staff and traffic reports be available to the public two weeks - instead of the current seven days - before hearings.

"There have been real breakdowns in the system. Submitting the reports may not seem like a big deal, but the reality is they weren't doing the seven days. They were submitting it to the Planning Board the day before or the day of the case," Guzzone said.

Ball, a Democrat newly appointed to the council, said he has worked as a conflict mediator and likes that concept.

"It works better when we can take the adversarial components out of the system," he said. With just a few Zoning Board cases under his belt, Ball said, "I saw instances when the developers and the community came together, and there was a better product."

Ulman said judges frequently use mediation in all types of highly contentious cases.

Grace Kubofcik, co-president of the League of Women Voters chapter in Howard, said she is leary of the mediation idea, but likes the others.

"Except for mediation, they're going in a very positive, productive way for citizens," she said.

Howard Weinstein, a community activist critical of developers, called the bills "long-overdue baby steps toward desperately needed zoning reform."

But other development foes criticized the council Democrats' plan.

Harry Dunbar, a real estate agent running for county executive as a slow-growth Democrat, said the council members should wait and allow the next County Council to reform zoning.

Angela Beltram, who led the citizens petition drive against Comp Lite, also is a critic.

"I don't understand mediation in a zoning case. I don't think it's legal," she said.

What she and her supporters want is a Zoning Board more willing to deny requests.

"There's no question, they allow development too often," she said.

She has no objection to requiring larger signs or having staff reports available earlier.

Mary Catherine Cochran, a member of Beltram's group, agreed, but she said the League of Women voters asked to meet about similar suggestions early last year.

"The fact that they're just getting to this now is silly," she said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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