The Aegis
The Aegis Opinion

Why zoning appeals authority is key [letter to The Aegis]

The following was sent to members of the Harford County Council. A copy was provided for publication.

I oppose Council Bill 14-21 which would eliminate the County Council as the Zoning Board of Appeals.


The County Council of Harford County embraces a number of legal functions, including that of Zoning Board of Appeals. Both as a citizen and as someone who has served as Council President, I believe the Council's role as Zoning Board of Appeals is one of its most important.

It has been argued that everything the Council now does as the Zoning Board of Appeals can be done by the Circuit Court. As a matter of black letter law that may be true, but as a matter of legal principle in a democracy it is false. Precisely because the County Council sits as the directly elected representatives of the sovereign people of Harford County, the Council is much nearer to the heart and voice of the people than the Circuit Court. That is as it should be. We want the courts to be somewhat insulated from the popular will. It is for the Council as Zoning Appeals Board to listen to any and all who have standing: the reasonable and the unreasonable, those with valid points and whose with invalid points, those with something to say and those with nothing to say, and even those who just need to blow off steam. The Council as Zoning Appeals Board is the democratic shock absorber in the zoning appeals process. It stands between legal professionals expert in zoning, the hearing examiner below and the circuit court above. The Council as Zoning Appeals Board must render its decisions according to legal norms and has legal advice to that end. But the Council also brings a human dimension to the process precisely because the Council is so close to the sovereign people. Yes, the hearing examiner and the circuit court can set conditions and broker accommodations, but when the Council as Appeals Board does so, it is with a different kind of listening, a listening more attuned to the voice of the sovereign people whom they serve.


There is a great deal more that I could say against this bill, but let me close with this. I believe my work as Chair of the Zoning Appeals Board did more to increase in me two essential virtues for a good public official than any other function of the Council. First, it made me more judicious. I became more careful in all my work as Council President in attending to legal detail and to the practical ramifications of the Council's actions. Chairing the Appeals Board also made me more courageous because sometimes it is necessary not merely to represent the people who elected us, but also to teach those very same people and even sometimes courteously and kindly to tell them that we cannot do what they want us to do.

President Harry Truman once likened the work of public office to a hot kitchen. There was never a law and there never will be a law which can turn down the heat. And that is true of this bill. If it becomes law, Council members will still have to deal with citizens angry about the zoning process, but the Council members will no longer have a stake in the process by which the matter at hand is resolved.

To eliminate the Council as Zoning Appeals Board is to diminish not only the Council's authority, but also the voice of the sovereign people. And whose voice will be strengthened? Precisely the zoning attorneys who are so adept at working the legal system. Elimination of the Council as Zoning Appeals Board would strike a blow at the right functioning of democracy in Harford County.

Jeffrey Dirk Wilson


The writer is a former Harford County Council president.