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Council approves zoning counsel



A reference in yesterday's paper about the new position of zoning counsel approved by the Howard County Council Tuesday night requires clarification.

The attorney filling this part-time position next year is to advise citizens on the zoning and development process, and appear before the county Zoning Board to defend existing zoning, whomever that may benefit. The counsel is not intended to be solely an advocate for residents fighting developers.

The Sun regrets any confusion.

Howard County residents will have a new ally on occasions when a developer plans to build in their neighborhood. Last night, the County Council unanimously approved a part-time zoning counsel.

The lawyer will advise residents on arcane zoning laws and regulations and appear on their behalf before the county zoning board.

Under the measure, the position will be filled when the new budget year begins in July 2001.

The vote came as two other development-related measures were introduced for votes next month - a draft General Plan and a resolution that would again close the northeast school district to development.

The General Plan, which charts the county's growth through 2020, calls for a 25 percent reduction in home construction - though up to 30,000 new units would be possible during the period. Predictions are that growth will slow in Howard after another decade, when large, undeveloped parcels will no longer exist. The plan commits the county not to extend water and sewer service west of current lines, thus limiting growth in rural areas.

Complications in a plan to build an elementary school in the crowded northeast - covering Ellicott City and Elkridge - spurred the move to temporarily ban home building in the area , under a county law that regulates new home construction near crowded schools.

Because of crowded classrooms, the northeast district had been closed to development until July 1, when the county began allowing developers to submit plans for 2003, based on the expectation that the new school would be open by then. But uncertainty caused by methane gas found on the prospective building site could delay construction.

The potential delay triggered the ban on home building, and could delay construction of more than 70 homes, said Joseph W. Rutter Jr., the county planning director.

Planners said building permits for 23 homes were approved in July and August, and 107 are being processed. Most of those won't be approved before the council votes on the new bills Oct. 2, Rutter said.

If the problem with the gas leak, which is from an old county dump, is cleared up by January, or a new site is found by then, the school could still open on time, Rutter said.

Although the zoning counsel position is part-time and will not provide as strong a citizen advocate as some want, the measure's sponsors said it is an improvement and a good middle ground.

"I think the legislation we originally filed was a good compromise. One side wanted more teeth, and the other side didn't want any zoning counsel at all," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.

"I looked at a number of suggestions people made. A [major] rewrite wasn't in the works," said Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat and the bill's primary sponsor.

The counsel will not have the power to appeal cases or participate in board of appeals hearings, but Guzzone said residents still will have help.

The limited powers sparked a petition drive to place the issue of a stronger counsel on the November ballot, but the effort fell far short of the required 10,000 signatures from registered voters.

Ed Walter, the resident who sponsored the drive, has said he will continue collecting signatures to place the issue on the ballot in 2002. He has called Howard's zoning counsel "a toothless tiger" compared with those in Baltimore and Prince George's counties.

Guzzone, who thanked Merdon for his support, said, "This will be a good service for the county as a whole."

Guzzone wants to make longer-lasting changes by rewriting county development regulations, which will take more time but could be more effective in preventing problems with development by toughening standards for special exceptions and zoning variances.

"We'll see how this goes," Merdon said as he voted last night.

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