Residents tell Harford Council: Don't step down as zoning appeals board

More than a dozen residents told the Harford County Council Tuesday that removing the council's role as the zoning appeals board would be an abdication of responsibility and even undemocratic.

Former council president Jeffrey D. Wilson, who was among the 19 signed up to speak during a public hearing on the proposed charter amendment, said the council is closer to the people than a court and can act as a "democratic shock absorber."

Like other residents during the Tuesday night hearing, he said removing the board would only strengthen lawyers and developers who know how to work the system.

The council introduced and is considering a charter amendment to remove itself as the appeals board. If the council passes it, voters would ultimately vote on the measure as a referendum during the general election in November. The council did not vote on the amendment Tuesday.

Any zoning appeals cases would go directly from the hearing examiner to Circuit Court.

Council members have argued they need to step down as the board of appeals so they can avoid a conflict of interest while talking to constituents.

A charter amendment nominally giving council members the right to talk about zoning was passed in 2012, but council members - notably Dick Slutzky, who is running for council president - said it did not fix the problem.

Councilman Dion Guthrie said in the roughly 12 years he has sat on the council, no one has approached him to say, "It's great the council is the board of appeals and we want you to stay that way."

He said the council has meanwhile heard "nothing but complaints" that residents cannot talk with the council on zoning issues.

Morita Bruce, president of Friends of Harford, later replied in her testimony: "Consider all these people [here] saying, 'You are doing a good job.'"

Several council candidates, including Christopher Boardman, James Thornton, Gina Kazimir and Barbara Osborn Kreamer, also were at the meeting to oppose the amendment.

Many of the speakers opposing the proposal were residents who have also opposed a retirement community on the former Eva-Mar farm or a Walmart in Emmorton. Slutzky has cited his inability to comment on both projects as justification for the charter amendment.

Some residents said the claim that the council must remove itself as the board to be able to speak on zoning issues is simply not true.

Bruce said about the Eva-Mar situation: "You have to keep in mind you can talk to those folks because there is no [zoning appeal] case file."

Bill Wehland said the county attorney has interpreted the charter's forbidding of the council from being influenced on zoning issues as meaning that the council can have no communication at all with residents.

"That is wrong," he said.

He said the council has the duty and responsibility to remand or reaffirm the hearing examiner's decision, and that the council must act as a check and balance.

"You are giving it up. Why?" Wehland asked.

George Harrison said opting out of the board "is undemocratic."

"Democracy is a messy business," he added. "Whatever your concerns about dealing with the public, passing this bill would be an abrogation of that responsibility."

"I think it's time to set this aside and let it die," he said.

Slutzky replied after the comments that although he has been vilified for not talking to residents on zoning, he met with numerous lawyers on the issue and the interpretation was clear.

"It is a criminal offense to approach a county council member who is acting as a board of appeals member [on a zoning matter]," he said.

After the 2012 charter amendment passed, he asked various lawyers: "Does this really work?"

"The response I received was, 'No,'" he said.

When the Walmart project came forward "and I got letters from Walmart with 30 lawyers listed, the question came up, what's the consequence?" he said.

Slutzky explained that his "true intent" with supporting the charter amendment was to say that if he speaks on zoning, he loses his ability to take part on the zoning appeals board.

He said many residents who spoke Tuesday refused to hear that explanation.

In light of the feedback from the hearing, however, "I may in fact reconsider what the public wants us to do," he said.

Aide pay change shot down

Also at Tuesday's meeting, the council voted down an amendment to a pay and classification bill that would have changed legislative aides' pay schedules, giving them a minimum salary of $37,300 instead of $30,200.

Their maximum potential salaries would go from $62,608 to $71,198.

The change would have cost the county an extra $13,800 annually, according to a fiscal impact note.

Guthrie had introduced the amendment but only Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti supported it.

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