The Howard County Council voted Monday night to pass two bills aimed at increasing public involvement and transparency in government and development projects.
One bill expands the notification procedures required of developers seeking to submit a new project proposal, while the other sets wheels in motion to broaden the availability of searchable government documents on the county's website.
The development notification bill, introduced by Council member Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents the southeast county, was inspired by negative reactions to construction near the North Laurel Community Center, which had flown under the radar of community members.
Nearby residents' first introduction to the project came when crews started tearing down trees near the center, Terrasa recalled: "I think that was sort of shocking to people, and no one knew what was going on."
Terrasa's bill creates new standards for developers to follow when informing the community of the pre-submission meeting required for any new project before plans are submitted to the county's Department of Planning and Zoning.
While she said she initially conceived of the legislation as a way to loop schools into the pre-submission meeting notification process, it grew into more.
The bill bolsters guidelines already in place that require developers to send out letters to all adjoining property owners and to post notice of the meeting on the site of the project.
Developers will now be required to inform principals and PTA presidents of all schools with an attendance area that includes the development site about the pre-submission meeting.
Another provision in the bill adds to the information that is required to be in the notice. Pre-submission meeting notices will now have to include a map of the subject property, as well as the type and amount of development, the web address for the Department of Planning and Zoning's Plans in Progress web page and information about how a community member can sign up to receive information about the project if they are unable to attend the meeting.
The bill gives developers a week after submitting project plans to the county to notify anyone signed up to track the development about the submission.
The bill also begins to touch on expanding rules related to posting pre-submission meeting notification signs. According to Terrasa, a main reason community members were blindsided by the project near the community center in North Laurel was that the required signs were posted on the development site at the terminus of a dead-end road.
Developers must now post signs three weeks ahead of the meeting, rather than two, and may be required to post another sign in a public area if the development adjoins parkland, a community center or another county-owned building, such as a library or school.
Terrasa acknowledged that more work could be done to improve the sign guidelines, but for now, "we have to have a safe, legal place to have signs," she said, pointing to concerns that signs permitted in the county's right-of-way could potentially block road visibility.
The online data bill, introduced by Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, is aimed in part at expanding the availability of land-use documents on the county's website, but also had a broad vision from the start.
In its final version, the bill will require that all documents uploaded to the county's website have a searchable format, starting 60 days after the legislation is signed into law.
Fox's greater goal, supported by all four of the other council members, who co-sponsored his legislation, is to increase the data and documents available on the county's website, across all governmental departments.
The bill creates a task force charged with devising a plan for a web portal that unites the county's online files and data. The group's report will be due before budget season next year, in order to allow the county to take any costs of expanding its online data availability into account.
Howard technology head Chris Merdon said the bill's deadlines, which were adjusted after he told the council his department might not have enough time to accomplish what was being asked, "are more manageable" and would allow for new staffing and software costs to be incorporated into next year's budget requests.
The task force will also be required to come up with a plan for uploading older documents. Data uploading onto a county portal should begin in July 2016, according to Fox.
He added that the bill was part of an effort over his years on the council to increase transparency by using technology and "utilizing what's there to make things more accessible."
The council will have one last voting session on pending legislation July 25 before members take their traditional August recess.