Zoning ombudsman wanted

Leopold gathering support for a permits, standards 'educator'

August 14, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

Stung by criticism from homeowners and business leaders about uneven zoning enforcement and proposed tougher rules for construction along Anne Arundel's shoreline, county officials are planning to hire an expert to help steer property owners through the often complex land-use and permit process.

County Executive John R. Leopold has been lining up legislative support for a bill he intends to present Monday that would create an ombudsman's position.

Leopold says the slot will ensure consistent rules, speed up building permit applications and interpret standards for building in the county's critical area within 1,000 feet of the bay and its tributaries.

"I really want to make this position an educator for people," the Republican executive said. "We've got to make zoning and permit laws accessible."

The plan, Leopold said, is to carve an existing job from the county's payroll, rather than create a new, appointed position. The ombudsman would report annually to the executive, the County Council and the chief administrative officer, Leopold said.

"This was one recommendation of a 65-member transition team," said Alan R. Friedman, Leopold's director of government relations. "This is really a recognition that local planning and land use has become very complex."

County lawmakers who have discussed the plan with Leopold have reacted well, he said. "I've talked to five or six out of the seven County Council members and we've had bipartisan support," Leopold said.

County Councilman G. James Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville, said he wants to see more details before voting on the ombudsman proposal.

"In principle, it sounds like a good idea, if done right," Benoit said. "I'm interested in the job description. We don't need a toothless tiger; it's just another layer of government.

"As an employee in the merit system, I think that person would be less vulnerable to political pressure. Maybe we need some sort of Critical Areas czar."

Leopold withdrew legislation that would increase penalties for building illegally in sensitive areas along the county's 530 miles of shoreline, after dozens of North County property owners turned out at the Aug. 4 council meeting to protest the legislation designed to mirror a tough new state law.

Opponents said the proposed local critical area proposal would have been even more strict than the state's version. It would have forced alleged critical area violators to sign a form admitting guilt and agreeing to a plan to repair the impact on the environment.

The state law requires each county to create its own enforcement program. Leopold said he plans to reintroduce the measure.

But concerns about the current enforcement system, including inconsistent and sometimes aggressive inspectors, drew 250 people to a July 24 meeting organized by local business associations.

Several association leaders said this week that they are unlikely to back the ombudsman position without knowing more about it, said Fran Schmidt, director of the North County Chamber of Commerce.

"We're all worried about critical areas, but we want to be sure we have uniform enforcement," Schmidt said.

"We'd also like to know," he said, "whether this position will have authority to do anything."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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