Growth oversight hobbled by vacancies

Planning, appeals board, examiner seats open

December 27, 2006|By a Sun reporter

Critical parts of the county's system of regulating growth and development are operating more short-handed today than perhaps at any time in its history.

Three components of that structure have vacancies, including one that has existed for five months. Howard County officials said they will fill the vacancies as quickly as possible, but that is likely to require at least two months.

Perhaps the most pressing need is finding a successor to Thomas P. Carbo, who resigned two weeks ago as hearing examiner for the Board of Appeals after being appointed deputy director of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development, because no cases can be heard until a replacement is seated.

In addition, there are two positions to fill on the appeals board itself because of the resignation of James Patterson and the expiration this month of James Pfefferkorn's term. Pfefferkorn has agreed to serve until a replacement is named.

Meanwhile, the planning board has been missing one of its five members since H. Gregory Tornatore resigned in July.

"Most of these people bring to the table life experiences," said William E. Erskine, a partner with the firm of Reese & Carney LLC, which represents several developers. "What they are missing when they don't have a full board is their collective wisdom."

The importance of those three regulatory systems is illustrated by two of the most contentious development issues this year - the expansion of Turf Valley, the resort and planned community in western Howard County, and the luxury 23-story residential and retail tower proposed for downtown Columbia.

Both developments were considered, and ultimately approved, by the planning board.

Opponents to the expansion of Turf Valley appealed the decision to the appeals board.

In the case of the approval of the proposed 275-foot skyscraper overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi, the matter was appealed to Carbo, the hearing examiner, and is now the subject of hearings by the appeals board.

The loss of Carbo is significant on two levels, Erskine said.

First, his office helped reduce the workload of the appeals board.

"Not many years ago there would be a backlog of six months before you could get your case heard," Erskine said. "Tom Carbo had really done a fantastic job in helping the appeals processes."

Second, his written rulings were succinct and went to the heart of the cases, which often helped produce changes in plans that later were endorsed even by previous opponents, Erskine said.

The County Council appoints the hearing examiner and members to the appeals board.

Sheila Tolliver, council administrator, said the county will attempt to retain a temporary examiner until a permanent one is nominated and confirmed - a process that will take at least two months.

The county is simultaneously seeking candidates for the two positions on the appeals board, Tolliver said.

Members of the planning board are appointed by the county executive, but are subject to confirmation by the council. Outgoing County Executive James Robey named Cabell Greenwood to the post, but the County Council declined to act on the nomination, believing the choice should be left to the next administration.

Aaron Greenfield, chief of staff for County Executive Ken Ulman, said a candidate has not been chosen. "In a month or two we should have a name," he said.

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