The Howard County Planning Board suffers a substantial lack of information because of inadequate technology, board member Dale Schumacher says.
"NASA [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] can pick out a house in the Soviet Union easier than we can track zoning cases in Howard County," he told the County Council last week.
Dr. Schumacher, who routinely accesses computer data bases when doing medical research, says the only way board members can get needed information now is for a staff person or an attorney to search through disparate files manually.
"The staff does a terrific job, but it's a back-breaking and inefficient way to work," he said. What the county needs instead, he said, is a computer data base available to every resident or official who wants to look at the zoning history of a specific piece of property.
In particular, the board could use a geographic information system to help it make decisions on development in Columbia and to help it make recommendations on zoning matters to the Board of Appeals and the County Council, Dr. Schumacher said.
Such a system would enable board members to sit at a computer panel and look at a specific property from several perspectives: zoning, water and sewer service, income, and traffic patterns, he said.
"A terminal would make it easier to make decisions," he said. "For example, we don't have dynamic traffic models. We can only make pencil and paper requests and have to rely on 'D modeling from developers."
Dr. Schumacher told council members he would like to see the Planning Board change from being "almost entirely reactive" to becoming a group that also provides a vision of the kinds of things that might occur in the county.
Instead of merely looking at individual parcels, the board could take a larger, pan-county view and possibly offer legislation to the council, he said.
He noted the possibility of a stadium coming to Laurel to house a National Football League team, saying local land uses need to be examined in terms of what is happening elsewhere.
Dr. Schumacher shared his remarks during an informal meeting last week in which Planning Board members aired complaints with the County Council.
"It appears that information furnished the council [by the planning board] is not utilized," said board Chairman William Manning.
Board member Joan Lancos agreed.
"It sometimes seems like decisions [of the council sitting as the zoning board] are not factually based," she said.
Marsha McLaughlin, deputy directory of the Department of Planning and Zoning and an adviser to the planning board, said board members find it disconcerting sometimes when the council "goes off in different directions."
Council member Shane Pendergrass, a 1st District Democrat, said she finds it helpful to have the planning board offer the council divergent points of view.
"There is no question that you're not a rubber stamp to the county executive," she said, "and we're certainly not a rubber stamp to you. We're finding your information very, very helpful to us -- it is actually quite a good process. . . .
"It's important to remember that you're the county executive's -- board. The Board of Appeals works for us. You need to work with him."
Zoning board Chairman Paul R. Farragut, a 4th District Democrat, said that the zoning board agrees with the planning board most of the time.
"Our decisions are different when we have different input from the public," he said. He also told the board that its format could be improved by scrutinizing the testimony it hears and sending the council a summary.
County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a 3rd District Republican, told planning board members he would find it more helpful to look at a specific case in which the two bodies reached different conclusions.
"Some citizens wait to come before the zoning board [to testify] because that's where the decision is going to be made," Mr. Gray said.
As long as elected council members serve as the zoning board, "You're never going to eliminate the fact that people come to the zoning board to say they will throw us out if we don't make the right decision," he said.