Carroll has logjam of zoning complaints Enforcement lapses after staff cutbacks during 1993 shortfall


Rudolph Hernandez looks forward to spring at his Bartholow Road home in Sykesville. It's not so much the warm weather he craves, but the leaves that fill in the bare trees, blocking his view of the neighborhood eyesore, McQuay's Auto Supply.

The auto repair and recycling business has been taken to court seven times since 1992 for zoning violations. The most common infraction is parked cars -- many untagged and broken down -- on its front lawn.

When cars began appearing again two months ago, Hernandez called the Carroll County zoning administrator's office for help.

To his surprise, he was told to get in line. Way back in line.

"They told me, 'We don't have the personnel,' " Hernandez recalled. "I said if you lived here, you would have the personnel."

Carroll County Zoning Administrator George L. Beisser can only sigh when he hears the story.

L "I probably won't get to it for another two weeks," he said.

Such waits have become normal for Carroll County. With one full-time enforcement officer, the state's second-fastest-growing county has the smallest zoning department in the metropolitan area. The bare-bones office struggles to enforce laws against abandoned vehicles, repair shops operating in residential neighborhoods, building without permits and dozens of other infractions.

Zoning complaints, once responded to within a matter of days, now take up to 60 days or more if the problem is not a threat to health or safety, zoning officials said.

In some cases, the laws are not enforced at all. In south Carroll, laws prohibiting sandwich boards and lighted signs in front of businesses are never enforced, said members of the South Carroll Business Association. The signs have become an obstacle to Route 26 beautification efforts.

"We're trying to make Route 26 be a little softer-looking, but some of the signs don't look good," said Valerie Schultz, owner of Marika's Bridal Shop and a leader of the beautification program.

Decline in property values

Other county residents, such as Hernandez, are afraid that over time, the lax enforcement will contribute to a decline in property values in some neighborhoods.

"I think it shows negligence on the part of the county," Hernandez said.

The county leadership disagrees.

County Commissioner Richard T. Yates said he was not aware of complaints about zoning enforcement, but he was not surprised that there have been some. Staffing is a concern for any county service, from police to teachers, he said. Increased staff will cost more money -- a trade-off that is difficult to sell to the public, he said.

"If people really want us to increase staff, they have to ask. But it's going to cost them money," he said. "I was elected not to raise taxes."

On a recent afternoon at the zoning administrator's office, Beisser dashed from his phone to his desk to the metal file cabinets, fielding calls, answering a visitor's questions and preparing for a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting the next day.

He was the only employee in the office that day.

Five years ago, when the county was in the middle of budget cutbacks, the department began losing personnel. It once had a zoning administrator, chief zoning enforcement officer, two zoning inspectors, a zoning technician and a secretary.

Two-man show

Today, the office has two full-time employees: Beisser, who has taken over the duties of zoning administrator and chief zoning enforcement officer; and a zoning enforcement officer. The office shares a secretary with two other departments.

Pleas for additional staff the past two years have gone unanswered. Both times Beisser made his case to the county staffing committee, which recognized a need for an additional employee but ranked the need below the requests of other departments.

The number of zoning enforcement officers in a county is left up to each jurisdiction. In the metropolitan area, it ranges from two full-time and one part-time in Harford County, to seven full-time officers in Anne Arundel County, to 31 in Baltimore County.

Frederick County is the only other county in the region with one enforcement officer.

"The people will let you know if they're upset with something. We've got a lot of laws that are hard to follow," said Thomas C. Smith, Frederick County's principal planner of development review. "We don't need to go out and look for violations."

Respond to complaints

Commissioner Yates agrees and says that Carroll County's enforcement officer should respond only to complaints.

"I don't want our inspectors out looking for trouble," he said.

They don't. In fact, they avoid it.

"I can drive down the road and see 30 to 50 sign violations," Beisser said. But he chooses not to write them up because it would create a larger workload for his department, he said.

This approach has resulted in about half as many cases being handled by the department. Before the cuts, two zoning officers would process about 500 violations each year, half from complaints, half discovered by the zoning officers. Now, the department struggles to handle about 250 cases, most generated by complaints.

Over time, this approach could lead to a decline in property values, Beisser said.

"Every county is concerned with growth management. We also have to be concerned about decline management," he said. "If there is neglect, the neighborhoods could go downhill and tax assessments go down. That means less money in the tax coffers."

Said planning director Philip J. Rovang, who oversees the zoning department: "Investigation. That's the key to success."

'Sore sight on left'

On a recent sunny afternoon at McQuay's Auto Supply, owner Doug Edwards complained that the rain during the past month has made it difficult for him to comply with zoning regulations.

"I'm trying to get this stuff out of here, but there's been too much mud," he said, pointing to about two dozen cars on the front lawn.

Since Edwards bought the company in 1992, he has gone to court seven times for a variety of infractions, most inherited from the previous owner, he said.

During that time, he has also noticed that the county's zoning enforcement is not what it was.

"They used to be out here every two or three days," he recalled. TC Edwards said he had not heard from the zoning office in months.

Neither have the neighbors.

"It would be good if they could clean up that area," said Nick DeCesare, who lives on Bartholow Road within sight of McQuay's. "I don't want to see anybody go out of business. But it certainly isn't improving property values in the immediate area."

Hernandez also is waiting for the county to get after McQuay's. In the meantime, he has decided to use the site for the best purpose possible: a landmark for visitors.

"When I tell people how to get to my home, I tell them to make sure they go past the sore sight on their left."

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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