Zoning jobs get backing in council

Two bills that would create a "zoning counsel" and a hearing officer for the Howard County Board of Appeals drew broad support last night at a County Council public hearing in Ellicott City.

Speakers, however, urged the four council members to strengthen both proposals to give the positions more power than is currently in the legislation.


Councilman C. Vernon Gray was attending the annual convention of the National Association of Counties, of which he was president for the past year, in North Carolina.

The hearing lasted past 11 p.m., forcing the departure of several people who had signed up to testify.


Of those who did speak, Elizabeth Riordon, of Clarksville, said her attempt to navigate the county's development process to ensure that a gas station planned near her home on Route 108 would be safe "was almost as if I was in a Monty Python show."

At each stage of the process, Riordon said, she received no help or any explanation of how things work in the county.

"A people's counsel could have told me" what to do, she told the council.

Robert Bernstein, president of both the Old Columbia Pike Preservation Association and the Ellicott City Residents Association, said he strongly supports both bills.

One bill would create a "zoning counsel" in Howard -- a person to defend existing regulations at Zoning Board hearings and to answer people's questions about the process. Councilmen Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon sponsored the bill, which some citizens feel is too weak to provide communities the public advocate they need.

The job in the bill would be a part-time contractual position, not a full-time merit system one.

Several speakers told the council they want a hearing examiner with broad powers.

Robert H. Levan, a lawyer and former people's counsel in Prince George's County, said the examiner should be allowed to hear both controversial and routine cases. He added that appeals should not be used to hear evidence for a second time and the county Board of Appeals should only hear legal arguments based on the earlier hearing.


Lee Walker Oxenham, an environmental activist, said "this basically is a process that is broken."

Proposals to create the hearing examiner and the zoning counselor are first steps needed to help citizens achieve equality with well-financed developers and their lawyers, Oxenham said.

Ed Walter of Woodstock is leading a petition drive to get the people's counselor proposal on the November ballot, though collecting 10,000 signatures by Aug. 14 may be too difficult to accomplish. He wants the person in the new job to be full-time, have the power to participate in Board of Appeals cases, and to appeal decisions to the Circuit Court.

The other development-related bill would allow voters to decide in November if the county needs a charter change to create the position of hearing officer to speed noncontroversial cases through the backlogged Board of Appeals.

The board hears 26 different kinds of administrative appeals, though most involve land use, and has cases scheduled through October.

The bill's sponsors, Guzzone and council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said it should not take months to hear routine cases. Any change to the county charter must be approved by county voters to become law.


The council will vote on both bills July 27.