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As anyone who was present or who tuned in via internet stream would attest, this week’s meeting of Carroll County’s Board of Commissioners packed quite a bit more drama and conflict than most.

At issue was comprehensive commercial/industrial/employment campus rezoning. Thursday’s vote was expected to be little more than formality, for good reason. Carroll County’s government has been in the process of overhauling its zoning code since 2015. In the past year, commissioners and county staff have met at 10 work sessions to review the proposed changes and Carroll residents had opportunities to make their opinions known at two public hearings and via submitted written comments.

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But, on Thursday, Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, threw the proverbial monkey wrench into the plans when he lobbied for some last-minute changes, sparking a tense, hour-long debate.

Rothstein wanted to change the zoning so that fuel stations, catering establishments, restaurants, drive-thrus and taverns/bars would be classified as conditional uses instead of permitted uses in the C-1 (commercial 1) zoning district. “Not all C-1 properties are equal, just as not all parts of the county are the same,” Rothstein said at the start of the debate, noting that these changes would give the public more of a voice. His 11th-hour attempt at amending the plans was, at least in part, at the behest of some of his constituents.

Fair points. And it’s understandable when elected officials advocate for those responsible for putting them and keeping them in office.

But this should’ve happened earlier in the process. If Rothstein had been hearing complaints all along, he needed to bring them up before Thursday. And if said constituents weren’t paying attention throughout, that’s on them.

When Rothstein began pointing out uses he thought should be switched from permitted to conditional, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-DIstrict-3, asked, “Where does it stop?” He predicted citizens would cause an “uproar” at every Board of Zoning Appeals meeting when a business they didn’t like tried to build in their community. “We’ve gone through everything here. We went through it all. We heard from all the parties,” Frazier said.

And Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said Rothstein was pandering to the “not-in-my-backyard” crowd with one of the better quotes we’ve heard in some time: “We can’t just pluck fuel stations out because Aunt Bessie’s ticked off at the Royal Farms."

Wantz and Frazier voiced concern over the people that could be affected, such as business owners and the zoning appeals board and Wantz said if significant changes were now going to be made, another work session would be needed and planning staff would have to assess the potential impact. “We’ve opened up a whole new can of worms here,” Wantz said.

When Rothstein called the zoning code a living document that can be changed at any time he was technically correct. But, in practical terms, so was Commissioner RIchard Weaver, R-District 2, when he said, “We’ll never come back to it.”

As a compromise, the commissioners amended the zoning changes to include gas stations being classified as conditional use. The motion passed 4-0 with Weaver abstaining. Under the new zoning, a gas station can be built in the C-1 district if a property owner first gets approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals to operate as a conditional use, according to zoning code. As for existing gas stations, they can continue operating but are considered nonconforming uses and thus prevented from expanding without a conditional use approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Perhaps this compromise was the best outcome. Perhaps the other commissioners should have dug in and voted for what was originally put before them on Thursday. Or perhaps all the changes Rothstein requested would’ve been an improvement. It’s impossible to know right now, largely because of the way it went down.

In the future, we hope citizens will involve themselves earlier in policy processes and the commissioners will bring up and debate possible changes in plenty of time to give them careful consideration.

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