Building review process debated; Commissioners back plan to exempt small projects, limit fees


Richard L. Bauerlein and Mark Schmidt would like to enlarge their auto repair shop on Littlestown Pike, north of Westminster. They hired a surveyor, had him draft a plan and went to the county seeking permission to build.

About 13 months and $8,000 later, the owners of D & M Automatic Transmissions are waiting for building permits that will allow them to tear down a two-story brick house on their half-acre parcel and build a 2,148-square-foot garage in its place.

Concerned that county approval for such projects costs too much and takes too long, the Carroll commissioners are pushing to exempt small-scale commercial and industrial projects from public review and hefty fees.

Under a proposal drafted by Ralph Green, director of the county's permits, inspection and review department, most commercial and industrial projects involving less than 20,000 square feet -- slightly less than half an acre -- would be exempt from review by the planning commission. Those that affect less than 5,000 square feet would also be exempt from landscaping requirements.

"We're trying to give the little guy a break," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell, a strong property rights advocate. "We'd like to avoid making small-business owners go through the full-blown site-plan process. In some cases, it costs more to develop the plan than it does to build the project."

In Frederick and Baltimore counties, small-scale projects are often exempt from a public hearing. County planners look at each project and decide which ones require community input and detailed site plans, basing their decision on the scope and intensity of the project.

No such program exists in Carroll. The county charges a review fee of about $1,000 for every project, whether it's a simple expansion like D & M Automatic Transmissions or a more complex development such as the proposed Eldersburg Marketplace, a shopping center.

"We have nearly $10,000 invested in this project and nothing to show for it," said Bauerlein, who opened the transmission repair shop about four years ago. Today, he has six employees. "Big businesses can pay all the fees without a problem, but the little guy doesn't have the resources. Requiring all this preplanning for a small project just doesn't make sense."

Bauerlein and his partner have spent $8,057 on permit fees, percolation tests, excavation work, a land survey and attorney's fees.

They hired lawyer Charles D. Hollman to represent them at a public hearing of the county Board of Zoning Appeals in October, where they asked to be exempted from the full site-plan process.

Over the objections of former county Zoning Administrator George Beisser, the board ruled that a detailed plan was not required for the project. Acting Zoning Administrator Robert A. Bair signed off on the project last month.

"The Bauerlein case clearly illustrates the need for a simplified site plan process," said Steven A. Ford, Carroll's development review supervisor.

The commissioners hope that easing restrictions on commercial growth will encourage businesses to expand and generate additional tax revenue for the county. The new revenue would help pay for schools and increased police and fire protection, services strained by residential communities that have sprung up during the past several years. Carroll's population has risen by 14 percent since 1990, to 153,000.

Residential growth has far outpaced commercial and industrial expansion, the types of projects that generate substantial tax revenue. Carroll's business tax base of 12 percent is the lowest in the Baltimore region.

It was not known yesterday how much revenue would be generated by Green's proposal, and county planners could not say how many small-scale projects are reviewed each year.

"We're still compiling data," said Steve Horn, Carroll's planning director. "It's hard to make projections at this point, given that nothing like this has been done before in Carroll."

Green's proposal was presented to the county planning commission last week. Planning panel member Maurice Wheatley questioned whether the commissioners have the authority to remove the planning commission from the oversight process.

Several Finksburg residents voiced concern about the impact an accelerated approval process would have on their community.

The planning panel will continue discussing Green's proposal at its next meeting at 9 a.m. April 18 in Room 3 of the County Office Building, 225 N. Center St. in Westminster.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad