Zoning bills due for a vote

Amendments address mediation, input by residents and sign regulations


Mediation would not be used to determine whether parcels of land should be rezoned, according to amendments prepared for a package of zoning reform bills by Democrats and a Republican on the Howard County Council.

A vote on the four bills is due tomorrow, the council's final meeting before the annual monthlong August hiatus.

Other amendments would ensure that residents have more time to introduce information to rebut developers, and to study data submitted to the planning or zoning boards. Signs posted on land proposed for changes would have to be double-sided and posted so that motorists could see them from either direction. Mediation could be used for determining the best plan for mixed-use or senior communities when zoning is not an issue, officials said.

The bills "will make it a lot easier for citizens to participate in the process," said Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who was the principal drafter for the Democrats. Co-sponsors are Councilmen Ken Ulman, a candidate for county executive, and Calvin Ball, who is running for election to a full term on the council.

Both sides agree that mediation cannot be used when the Zoning Board is engaged in the legal exercise of determining whether a parcel qualifies for a zoning change. Maryland law says zoning can be revised only if a change in the neighborhood has occurred or if the zoning map is in error.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican running for county executive, said that is what his amendment seeks to clarify, too.

"The purpose of the amendment is to maintain the legal fact that you must establish change or mistake first. Even if everyone agrees, if you haven't met the legal standard, you can't change the zoning," he said.

Guzzone said that was always the intention, but he would like to see new legislation when a new council takes office to go further.

"I think a further step is needed in the future to bifurcate the hearings to force the two sides to focus simply on change or mistake first," said Guzzone, who is running for a seat in the House of Delegates. If a zoning change is found justified, mediation could be used to help a community and developer or landowner decide what new zone is appropriate to blend with the existing homes.

"We'll leave that up to the next council," Guzzone said.

Merdon said the amendments, designed to give citizens more time to examine technical reports or to submit new information, "create a level playing field for both petitioners and protestants."

Guzzone said that even the measure detailing the size and placement of signs is needed.

"It's funny the little things that are taken for granted," Guzzone said. Although sign issues might seem easily remedied by an administrative change in regulations, "somewhere along the line, nobody thought to do it," Guzzone said.

Despite his amendments, Merdon criticized the Democrats' bills.

"Their legislation was a rush job to try to change their image on growth and development. Had they reached out to the community first, they wouldn't need to make these last-minute changes," he said.

Ulman rejected that.

"The one thing I know is that I am the only candidate for county executive who has proposed any improvements to our land-use process. I constantly hear complaints and criticism, but no ideas," he said.

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