Sea change in land use?


Having succeeded in throwing a year's worth of land use planning into limbo, Angela Beltram, community activist and former elected and appointed official, is eyeing another prize: overhauling the county's zoning process.

While both efforts target zoning, the intended results are distinctly different.

Beltram led an effort that placed a referendum on the November ballot that challenges hundreds of rezoning cases approved last year in what is commonly referred to as Comp Lite.

Now she and supporters believe it is time to make fundamental changes in how zoning matters are decided. At the heart of the proposal is a plan to replace the Zoning Board with an independent zoning officer.

The process now, Beltram says, is heavily political and too often swayed by special interests and the popularity of projects.

It's difficult to withstand those pressures, she says, when the Zoning Board is made up of the five-member County Council.

Some examples of recent actions:

On July 28, 2005, the Zoning Board rejected increasing density for Maple Lawn, Maryland, saying, in part, that the county was morally bound by the terms it set when first approving the project five years earlier.

Morality wasn't mentioned six months later, when the same board approved a last-minute, but temporary, truce between opponents and the developer of Maple Lawn, which included allowing mandated moderately priced housing to be moved to another, unspecified location in the county.

Two years ago, the County Council refused to act on a request to rezone about 28 acres in Elkridge. It unanimously approved the same request a year later, concluding that was the most appropriate zoning for the property, only to see the land engulfed in a legal web.

And last month four of those members - sitting as the Zoning Board - said there was no basis on which to reclassify the land and left the zoning as it was 24 months ago.

There were different reasons for each vote, including the degree of public support or opposition. But, some say, those and other recent examples illustrate basic flaws and inconsistencies in how land-use policies are determined.

Although Beltram will unquestionably face opposition, her message can't be swept aside because she enjoys unique perspective and standing, having served on the Planning Board, the council and, thus, the Zoning Board, and the county continues to call upon her expertise in land-use matters, most recently as a member of the appointed commission to study future development along U.S. 40.

The timing for a change, she says, is right because the next council will have at least four new members.

Others, including some who embraced the referendum, are not convinced the process adversely affects the public.

"No matter how you slice it, it's a political process," says David A. Carney, a partner with the law firm Reese & Carney LLP, and whose clients include some of the largest developers in the county. "The council and the Zoning Board should be accountable to the public.

"If the zoning body is not subject to the voters, then I don't think it's good. The Zoning Board needs to have courage and do the right things for the county and not for select individuals."

The issue, although not new, has gained additional attention because of the controversy over Comp Lite and the resulting referendum, making development and land-use policies perhaps the most important issues in the general election.

There have been several instances in which property owners handcuffed by the referendum have sought to be removed from the Comp Lite legislation and acted on individually, commonly referred to as "piecemeal" zoning. One of those was the 28 acres at routes 100 and 103 in Elkridge. To approve those cases, the Zoning Board is required to conclude that the character of the neighborhood had changed substantially, making existing zoning no longer viable, or that the council erred in not rezoning the property in 2004.

In effect, the council members are sitting in judgment of themselves.

While they, as the Zoning Board, determined that neither standard had been met, parties on both sides of the issue acknowledge that the board probably would have voted differently had the case not faced public opposition.

But it's not just Comp Lite cases that are at issue. Critics of the process claim that decisions are often dictated not by the merits but by popularity.

In the Maple Lawn case last year, for instance, the Zoning Board rejected an increase in density after residents adamantly opposed the application.

"Five years ago I signed a DNO [decision and order] ... at 2.2" density, board Chairman Guy Guzzone said at the time. "I don't believe that we are legally responsible to be held to that. ... However, I can't go back on what I signed."

Six months later, he and his colleagues didn't discuss the original terms or the DNO as they backed a two-year truce between opponents and Maple Lawn - including a waiver to the requirement that the development include roughly 100 moderate-income housing units.

Beltram said an independent zoning officer would diminish the influence of special interest groups and remove politics from the equation.

The appointed person would be a land-use expert and would have no political or economic stake in the county, Beltram says.

"It allows one to step back ... with the ability to consider issues coldly," she said. "It would result in less pressure by special interests and result in an independent analysis of the facts."

Beltram and supporters intend to ask council candidates if they would support an independent zoning officer, much like the system used by Montgomery and Baltimore counties.

The idea could only be implemented with a change to the county charter.

Councilman Charles C. Feaga says that, although the process might be inconsistent at times, it works well. And one reason it does, he says, is because "we answer to the public."

Feaga says he doubts an independent zoning officer would be independent.

"I think you'd have the same thing," he says. "Someone either climbing for office or answering to the people who appointed him. I don't think you'd get what you think you'd get."

Planning Board member H. Gregory Tornatore doesn't know if an independent officer is the answer, but he says the county's planning process needs review.

"There's too much redundancy in the system," he says. "It seems to me that it's an awful colossal waste of time. ... It takes way too long for zoning cases to be heard and resolved.

" ... It's an issue that needs to be looked at carefully."

Beltram says that if the new council won't back a charter amendment, her group can seek another referendum.

"It wasn't hard to get 8,000 signatures in two months," she says. "It was easy."

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