A proposed county charter amendment would remove the Harford County Council as the final authority in zoning appeals cases, a role the council has had since the inception of home rule government more than 40 years ago.
The amendment, introduced at Tuesday's council meeting as Bill 14-21, would remove a step in the zoning appeals process that has often been criticized by developers and other property owners, but one which makes the elected council members responsible for deciding variances, special exceptions and conditional uses that on occasion can have a significant impact on a neighborhood.
The amendment would keep the initial step in the process of having the appeals case decided by a hearing examiner; however, instead of the examiner's decision being subject to review, modification and possible rejection by the county council, a contested decision at the examiner level would have to be appealed straight to Harford County Circuit Court.
The hearing examiners would still be employed by the county council.
A public hearing on the change, Bill 14-21, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. June 3 in the council's chambers in Bel Air. If the council passes the bill, county voters would still have to approve the amendment during the November general election before it could take effect.
Dissatisfaction with rule
Current council members have complained for several years they cannot speak with their constituents about zoning-related issues before they hear the appeals, as they preside as "quasi-judges" over the zoning appeals board.
In 2012, Councilman Joe Woods said he was temporarily blocked from even receiving any emails with the word "zoning" in them.
"Apparently anything that comes into the county with the word zoning, it gets blocked from me, because we're the zoning appeals board [as well as the council]," Woods said. "We can't legally get involved with certain zoning issues until it goes to the zoning appeals board. So our email system would automatically take out zoning issues and ship them to another [place]."
On Wednesday, Councilman Dick Slutzky said removing council members from the process would remove any conflict and allow them to instead advocate on residents' behalf.
Slutzky is one of the amendment's sponsors, along with Woods, Councilmen Jim McMahan and Dion Guthrie and Council President Billy Boniface. Among that group, Slutzky is running for council president to replace Boniface, who is retiring, and McMahan, Woods and Guthrie are running for re-election.
In the past three years, the council has come under fire from residents living near several proposed developments around Route 924 and Plumtree Road south of Bel Air, as well as a proposed single family housing development and retirement community planned on the former Eva-Mar Farm on Route 543 east of Bel Air.
Walmart's plan to build a new store at 924 and Plumtree triggered protests in 2012 and 2013 but was not subject to a zoning appeals proceeding. Council members, however, were accused of dodging public discussions on the issue because there was a zoning appeal pending by another developer planning apartments across Route 24 from the Walmart site. The apartment case concluded earlier this year.
The Eva-Mar development has not involved a zoning case, but Slutzky nevertheless recused himself from talking about it during council meetings where protesters appeared last month.
Slutzky explained that, until a referendum four years ago, the council was not supposed to comment or give advice on any issue that could potentially go before the zoning appeals board.
"Those were the rules we were operating under for the first eight years of my time on the council," he said.
Despite a referendum four years ago, Slutzky said he was advised by several lawyers to nevertheless refrain from commenting on the Eva-Mar case.
"The potential is, any of these situations that are being opposed by communities has the potential to become an appeals case," Slutzky said. "That is the advice that we were given."
Another potentially controversial development that is expected to come before the council in its role as the appeals board is the planned expansion of the Harford County Airport near Churchville. Last month, a hearing examiner approved a plan for a new, longer runway and other special exceptions the airport owner is seeking.
Boniface, who could not be reached for comment for this article, testified last winter against the airport expansion during the proceedings before the hearing examiner, citing possible adverse impacts on his family's horse farm a few miles from the airport.