Unofficial panel wields influence on development


Technically, it doesn't exist.

The Development Review Committee was not created by statute, so the panel has no authority. Because it is an unofficial body, no notes or minutes of its meetings are kept.

Yet the six-member advisory board, made up of Baltimore County agency heads, is considered by many to be one of the most powerful in the county. The reason: It determines whether proposed development projects will be subject to public hearings.

"I say all their actions are illegal," said J. Carroll Holzer, a former county attorney who two years ago unsuccessfully challenged a DRC recommendation on construction of a convenience store before the county Board of Appeals. "The DRC went from being a nothing group to now being the board that almost all development passes through."

DRC supporters view the board's weekly meetings -- at 1:30 p.m. Mondays in the County Office Building -- as an aid to developers who were granted zoning and subdivision approvals years ago and want to revise them.

A DRC recommendation can keep a project with what the committee determines are minor changes from going through the full development-review process. That process usually requires a community meeting and an appearance before a zoning commissioner.

"It's a recognition that you never have to do anything twice," said Scott Barhight, a Towson land-use attorney. "It can save you anywhere from six to 12 months, and that's a huge difference.

"And you know when the recommendation is going to be made. You can go and watch it."

What you can't do as a member of the public, however, is participate. Before every meeting, committee Chairman Don Rascoe announces: "This is not a public hearing, this is a public meeting."

The DRC is the creation of Arnold Jablon, the county's director of the Department of Permits and Development Management. During the past 20 years, Jablon has served four county executives as everything from zoning commissioner to county attorney. He formed the DRC in 1992, when county development rules were revamped to allow for more public input.

The county Board of Appeals has described the DRC as Jablon's "kitchen cabinet." The committee consists of representatives from five county agencies: environmental protection, planning, recreation and parks, permits and development management, and zoning.

Jablon said the committee serves as a buffer between him and developers seeking one of 20 public hearing exemptions allowed under county law.

Only Jablon has the authority to grant an exemption. Yet most times, he acknowledged, he never sees the plans. His name is stamped on the letter sent to developers after the DRC makes its recommendation. Jablon said he has reviewed only a handful of projects since the committee was formed.

The alternative to the DRC, Jablon said, would be for him to decide behind closed doors which projects are exempt.

"It's done in the open and provides notice and review in public," Jablon said. "It's perfectly legal. If [the projects] meet the exemption law, they meet the law. If they don't, they don't."

The meeting also spares the county from having to ship plans from department to department for review, Jablon said. However, deliberations over development plans generate no records, other than a letter to the applicant stating whether his or her request for what is called a "limited exemption" is granted.

Longtime DRC critics such as Carol Shaw contend that the lack of paperwork limits the ability to successfully challenge committee recommendations.

Until two years ago, the county Board of Appeals refused to hear challenges of DRC decisions. That policy was reversed partly in response to a county Circuit Court decision requiring additional public comment in a case involving the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Research Park.

"People want the right to appeal, and you can't appeal if you don't know how they made the decision," said Shaw, a community activist with the Greater Kingsville Civic Association, which hired Holzer to challenge a DRC decision to exempt a proposed Royal Farms store in rural Fork from a public hearing. "It's not right that they should be allowed to do that."

Most of the half-dozen plans that the DRC reviews each Monday involve small projects. But the committee has attracted attention during the past year for recommending that a Wal-Mart in Bowleys Quarters and a Target in Pikesville be exempted from public review over issues such as traffic impact.

Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina introduced a resolution in April asking the county planning board to review the development process after the Wal-Mart, to be built at Bowleys Quarters and Carroll Island roads, gained a limited exemption. The DRC approved the plaza as a "minor" development.

"It's ridiculous," said Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat. "Wal-Marts start at 100,000 square feet and up. [The developer] did what the law allowed, but there was a loophole, a loophole that needs to be closed."

The DRC treated those two projects no differently from any other, Jablon said. Both sites are shopping centers and had the appropriate zoning for the proposed stores. And neither project would require subdividing land or changing county amenities such as public roads, traffic lights, or water or sewer service.

"If they meet the exemption," Jablon said, "they meet the exemption."

As part of Gardina's resolution, a 25-member advisory group chosen by the county planning board recently offered suggestions on how to increase public involvement in the process. One recommendation called for creating a brochure that outlines the development-review process.

But DRC critics dismissed the recommendations as inadequate.

"Not only does this draft do nothing to substantively increase public participation in the development process, it actually restricts it to a greater degree," Shaw said. "The draft does nothing to correct the deficiencies that allowed the approval without adequate public comment."

Jeffrey Long, a development review section chief in the county's Planning Office, was chairman of the advisory group meetings. Long also sits on the DRC. Shaw's concerns were shared by a minority of advisory group members, he said.

The planning board chose not to act on the advisory group's recommendations and has sent them back to the group for further discussion. Meanwhile, DRC meetings proceed.

"People don't like the law," Jablon said, referring to the public hearing exemptions. "So they blame the people that implement the law."

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