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Rules for developers can't always be fair


"PLAY FAIR" is an expression parents with young children become accustomed to hearing. Typically it's what one child screams when he's losing a game to a playmate. For them, playing fairly should be simple. Just follow the rules. But it's confusing when the rules are changed, just as it is with adults.

The rules for developing property in Howard County are being changed. With three new members, the County Council is trying to fulfill campaign promises to slow the pace of development.

Proposed changes in zoning law, however, have raised a question of fairness: Should developers who begin a project under one set of rules expect to finish it under the same guidelines?

No universal answer

There is no universal answer. Consider the case of Ahmad Bagheri, a developer who wants to build a 25-unit townhouse complex for senior citizens near West Friendship.

The rules were wrongly changed to allow him to do this. But they were changed nevertheless. Is it now fair to again change the rules to prevent the townhouses from being built?

That issue faces the County Council. In reaching a decision it must answer another question: What is the greater good for Howard County?

The county needs more housing for senior citizens. But should it come at the expense of spurring unwanted development in the rural west end?

The county's General Plan prohibited the extension of sewer lines to that area for good reason. The county doesn't want to encourage development there.

But in 1994, the Department of Public Works ignored the General Plan and included Mr. Bagheri's site on a map of land that could get sewers if property owners paid to extend the lines.

Mr. Bagheri waited until last year to make his next move. He applied for a special exception to build townhouses on the old farmland. The Planning Department recommended denial of the application, saying the property is outside the public-sewer district.

In December, the Planning Board agreed with the staff assessment and recommended to the Board of Appeals that the application be denied. But in January, the Board of Appeals approved the project.

It was simply following the rules. The property is on the public-sewer map that was revised in 1994 and the property owner is ready to pay $400,000 to extend sewer lines.

The appeals board decision has Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. trying to change the rules again. He has asked the County Council to adopt a resolution that would deny an extension of sewer lines to Mr. Bagheri's parcel.

The resolution has the backing of County Executive James N. Robey, who doesn't want to open up the west end to development.

But some council members aren't sure that thwarting Mr. Bagheri would be fair. Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, who represents Western Howard, says he's undecided. A vote is expected March 1.

Councilman Guy Guzzone said compensation might be the fair way to settle such cases. Compensate Mr. Bagheri for the time and money he has spent so far. But do not open the door for sewer-line extensions in Western Howard.

In another case, the Planning Board last week approved proposed regulations that would require lots to be at least 2 acres in developments larger than 20 acres within 2,500 feet of a reservoir in a rural conservation district.

The rule change is Councilman C. Vernon Gray's idea. He wants to reduce the number of houses in a development planned for Dayton.

But the Planning Board said the Big Branch Overlook project should be exempted from the new rules because the planning department had already approved it.Again, it will be up to the council to decide what is fair.

Fairness also must dictate the council's decision on sweeping changes in mixed-use zoning regulations that Mr. Guzzone is proposing.

The Planning Board is expected to make a recommendation on his amendments on March 11.

If implemented as is, they could have a profound impact on the huge residential and employment development planned for the Iager Farm property near Fulton.

Require roads first

One Guzzone rule change would require roads to be in place before site development plans are approved. That could jeopardize the Iager project, which will depend on costly improvements to Route 216 and U.S. 29 that haven't even been funded.

Mr. Guzzone says he is open to suggestions to alter his proposed zoning amendments. "No one wants to be unfair," he said.

But anytime you change the rules, accusations of unfairness are bound to be made.

Sometimes the accusations are true. Sometimes there's no other way to right a wrong. Affirmative action, as a concept, doesn't pass many fairness tests but it has been a useful tool to right past wrongs.

The council has to decide when fairness to one has to take a back seat to what's best for all.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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