Arundel councilman, also restaurant developer, backs bill to speed permits

Fink says he sees no conflict as bill would affect all projects

February 10, 2011|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

An Anne Arundel County councilman who is part-owner of a restaurant development venture in his Pasadena district has introduced legislation that would require the county to respond more quickly to building permit requests.

Councilman Derek Fink, a Republican and vice chairman of the council, campaigned on permit reform before being elected to his first term last year, and county planning officials have acknowledged that the process needs retooling. Fink said there is no conflict between his business interests and the bills he introduced Monday night, which he says aim to streamline the process for obtaining a building permit.

The legislation, set for a public hearing next month, is unlikely to affect Fink's pending permit to construct a 217-seat Greene Turtle Sports Bar and Grille on Magothy Beach Road in Pasadena. He applied for that permit in April, though he also owns a 23 percent stake in a holding company that has the rights to develop additional franchises in the county, according to ethics disclosure forms.

"It's not just a bill that Derek Fink's trying to make sure the permitting process is better for him," said Fink, who was elected to the council in November. "I campaigned on this issue. I've always been open about the Greene Turtle. And I've been through a nightmare with the permitting process. … I can't believe this is an issue. I just don't see a conflict."

Betsy K. Dawson, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Ethics Commission, declined to comment. According to county ethics law, council members are disqualified from participating in legislative action if they have an interest in the issue "distinguishable" from the general public.

Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group, said in an e-mail, "When a council member introduces legislation that they could personally benefit from it raises conflict of interest questions. Their interest in the bill should be fully disclosed and they should abstain from voting on the measures."

Stephen W. Thibodeau, chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee, declined to comment, as did County Council Democrats Jamie Benoit and Daryl Jones.

Ron Dillon, who held Fink's seat on the council for two terms until he was term-limited last year, said while Fink finds himself in a "tricky position," his familiarity with the permit process brings "good experience" to his role as a lawmaker. Dillon said during his time on the council he recused himself from voting on pending legislation that could have presented a conflict about a half-dozen times.

"At first glance, it looks like a conflict," said Dillon, a Republican. "If I was in the situation, I would have maybe tried to get through the [permit] process first — try to have my project done. But his experience with the Greene Turtle probably put in perspective what he heard on the campaign trail. I think his experience is extremely valuable to the people he represents. And ultimately, that's the name of the game."

Fink said the legislation is not aimed at his interests; he believes the county would benefit from a smoother process.

"This bill is not just changing the permitting process for commercial buildings," he said. "It's everybody that puts in a permit for anything."

The package of County Council bills, co-sponsored by Fink's Republican colleagues on the council, would give county officials 60 days to provide feedback on building permit applications and create a review committee for the permit process. Currently, county law says the response should be "reasonable," which Fink says has resulted in a "very drawn-out process."

Along with his business partners, Del. Steve Schuh, former Del. James King and several other investors, Fink plans to develop future franchises of the popular sports bar in Annapolis and Crofton. While Fink's company has been granted a grading permit for the Pasadena project, it must pay the county about $395,000 in fees before it receives a building permit.

Schuh and King, both Republicans, said they were unaware of the legislation. They each said the county's permit process is in dire need of reform and it often takes firsthand knowledge of an issue to enact change.

"For our legislature and councils to function effectively, we need our elected officials to bring their real work experience to their respective legislative bodies," said Schuh. "Mr. Fink has just gone through a rather arduous permitting process as a local Pasadena business owner. I think it's great news that he's now gone through what so many of our citizens have gone through and gained insight. I'm delighted to hear that he's working on the permitting process."

Tracie Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the county, said in an e-mailed statement that the county's Office of Law, Department of Inspections and Permits and the Office of Planning and Zoning are reviewing the bills.

"We look forward to working with Councilman Fink to improve the process," Reynolds said.

Councilman John J. Grasso, one of the co-sponsors of the bills, called Fink "brilliant."

"I don't think it's a conflict whatsoever," said Grasso. "Who's a better person to be doing it than a person who can see the issues because of their experience? … I think he's the perfect person for it."

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