If you've been reading our paper the past months,you know Commissioner President Donald Dell issued a May 16 order compelling county zoning officials to stop searching out violations.

You also know we detailed several cases that influenced Dell's orderand one such case involved a farming family the commissioner had known for 50 years.

Finally, on July 3, we reported that State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman had told Dell that the order was "probably illegal," which had forced the commissioners to rescind the memo July 2.

The case raises a number of serious questions, both as to the specifics of zoning and to the manner in which this order was issued.

Few people, officials and residents alike, involved in zoning disagree with the commissioners' view that the zoning law -- which regulates land use -- needs revision. Dell asked zoning officials to identifyparts of the law that pose problems with enforcement and that have generated the most conflicts with residents.

But in the meantime, the law is on the books and to tell zoning inspectors not to do their job is wrong.

If the county can't wait until a formal revised ordinance is ready -- which is hard to believe after six years of study by two committees -- officials should amend the law temporarily to sayinspectors should "respond to complaints only" or to situations obviously jeopardizing public health and safety.

The proper way to do that, under Maryland law, is to have a public hearing with discussion, followed by an open vote.

In this case, Dell not only failed to do that, but he took it upon himself to issue the order, as if he were the county executive. He notified Commissioner Elmer Lippy after the fact, and Commissioner Julia Gouge was not aware of the memo.

Also, by not disclosing his relationship with the family involved in one of the cases, he left himself open to the possible appearance of a conflict of interest.

Let me make this clear, I am not saying a major conflict exists. I realize Carroll is a close community and Dell,active in the ag community, knows many farmers.

What I am suggesting is that when Dell presented the issue to Lippy and Gouge, he should have told them he knew the family. That way his colleagues could have said, "Fine, no problem." Or they could have said, "Some people could perceive a possible conflict, so perhaps you shouldn't cast a vote in this case." Either way, by being aboveboard and upfront, no onecould even suggest something appeared improper.

We can only hope the commissioners learned some lessons:

* All three commissioners should discuss and vote on issues jointly. No one should issue individual orders or directives.

* Except as provided by law, issues should be discussed and voted on openly at public meetings.

* As commissioners are bound to know people involved in cases before them, they should advise their colleagues immediately and have that made part of the record.

* Finally, since one big problem with the zoning law is the growing number of Board of Zoning Appeals cases that are taken to court, I urge the commissioners to consider an alternative.

When the zoning law is rewritten, include an arbitration panel to hear cases in which either the county or the property owner wants to appeal a BZA ruling.

Panel members would be appointed for one-year terms, so as not to be influenced by the desire to be reappointed. Bothsides would save considerable money, get more rapid decisions and cut down on the growing mountain of cases clogging our court system.

In last Sunday's "Shurshots," the suggestion was made that when the County Commissioners rewrite the zoning ordinance, they create an arbitration panel to hear cases in which either the county or the property owner wants to appeal a Board of Zoning Appeals ruling.Two points were not clear: * In many cases, instead of going to court, both sides could go to this "People's Court" panel; they would have to agree not to appealfurther. * So as not to be influenced by the desire to be reappointed, panel members would be appointed for one term; that term would last four years.
Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad