Critics said he lacked experience when he was appointed to the county Planning Board 18 months ago, but as Nelson Fenwick prepares to step down from the five-member panel, the 44-year-old computer specialist has learned at least one thing -- if you want to influence a zoning decision, get involved early.
"Too many times people start becoming involved and concerned in the bottom of the ninth, if you will. It's important to show up for the first inning of the ballgame," Mr. Fenwick said.
He is resigning to devote more time to his job as a senior data base analyst at Maryland National Bank.
The most obvious lesson from his brief tenure, he says, is that key decisions are made when the General Plan being formulated, when a property owner requests that a site be rezoned or when sketch plans for specific sites are submitted.
Later steps in the approval process for new subdivisions, shopping centers and other projects that often upset neighbors are constrained by those earlier decisions.
For example, the General Plan is the county's 20-year blueprint for growth and often is later used as a justification for rezoning, which in turn permits certain types of development. Mr. Fenwick warns that momentum builds as a proposal moves through each of those steps.
"The beginning of the process is where they can have the most impact. As the process moves forward, the range of [Planning Board] decisions that can affect these decisions narrows."
While residential property owners frequently complain that the zoning process is unfair, accusing the board of favoring developers, especially when the considering site development plans or final development plans, Mr. Fenwick doesn't see it that way.
"I think that some people perceive the process to be unjustly weighted in favor of development interests," he said. "The process is, I believe balanced to protect the property and rights of both the landowner of the property to be developed and those who would be impacted by the development."
While characterizing the system as a fair one, Mr. Fenwick
acknowledged that it can be "terribly onerous and expensive" for ordinary homeowners. In one case, newlyweds expected to rent out an apartment in their new home. But after discovering the apartment was not legally registered, they had to spend thousands of dollars over several months before getting a zoning variance approved.
"They had made their plans on getting married and having kids based on earning income from the apartment," Mr. Fenwick said.
"They had to suffer through months of "not knowing whether or not that the plans that they had made concerning their life,
concerning their children, were going to be possible . . . Put yourself in their place for three or four months."
"There should be better ways, other avenues for these kinds of cases," he said, suggesting that uncontested cases might be handled administratively to smooth the process.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who appointed him, said Fenwick had proven himself to be an able board member, despite his initial lack of experience.
think Nelson contributed a lot to the board and showed it was a responsible nomination. Unfortunately, he's not able to devote enough time to it," Mr. Ecker said.
Mr. Fenwick has agreed to stay on until his replacement can be named.