Speaking to a group of developers, the seven candidates for Anne Arundel County executive this week railed against the county's approval process for development, with most calling for an overhaul of the Department of Planning and Zoning to cut red tape - and the time - necessary to get permits.
At a candidates forum before the Anne Arundel Commercial and Industrial Association on Wednesday in Gambrills, the five Republicans and two Democrats seeking to succeed Janet S. Owens said the current permit process needlessly delays projects for years and adds costs that are passed down to consumers.
Republican candidates John R. Leopold, a Pasadena state delegate, and Tom Angelis, a teacher from Davidsonville, said a double standard surrounds the permit process, making a veiled reference to the case of Daryl C. Wagner, a Millersville homebuilder who built an island home on the Magothy River without permits.
Wagner is fighting to acquire retroactive variances to keep his more than 5,000-square-foot home. County zoning officials have recommended that Wagner should keep his house but that he must tear down accessory features, including a replica lighthouse.
Angelis, who teaches in Baltimore, said that sends a troubling message: "I'm not going to bother getting permits anymore."
The candidates also took shots at Owens and Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer for failing to collaborate on a growth plan, especially with regard to development on the city's annexed land.
Del. David G. Boschert, a Crownsville Republican, summed up the sentiments of several candidates when he said that checks must exist on development to prevent environmental damage and congestion. He also said "people deserved permits to be issued in a timely fashion."
County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, a Pasadena Democrat, said that behind education, his top priority would be overhauling the county's permit process.
"It's not fair; it's not equitable, and people are not being treated right," he said.
Angelis called the permit system "woefully inadequate in serving the community." He said he would spend at least the first six months in office restructuring the department.
The development community has applauded the efforts of Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who last year spearheaded the first major revision of the county's land-use laws in three decades.
Owens, a two-term Democrat who cannot seek a third term, hired Rutter away from Howard County in 2002 with the goal of reforming the department. Last year's rewrite was intended to establish a more usable set of rules without the inconsistencies that hampered previous land-use regulations and led to delays in the review process.
But representatives of the development community say that has had little practical effect because the department lacks enough planners to review the thousands of proposals they receive each year, from residential subdivisions to simple house additions and decks.
It's typical for a developer to wait two to three years to receive all regulatory approvals to build a subdivision. Proposed developments that are held up because of strained public facilities, such as crowded schools, are not reviewed until the infrastructure is improved or the six-year deadline for the county to make those upgrades expires, they said.
That means such a project could take a decade to get off the ground, they said. Developers argue that delays result in costs that are passed along to homebuyers and other consumers.
Two Republicans, Gregory V. Nourse and Boschert, offered specific solutions to revamp the permitting process.
Nourse, an assistant superintendent of the county public schools and a Glen Burnie resident, spoke of a "concurrent review" process by which the same planners evaluate a project at each stage. He also said the county should review its hiring practices for planners.
Boschert said he would create a permit committee made up of county officials and citizens that would tackle all aspects of a building plan, including environmental effects.
Phillip D. Bissett, a Mayo Republican who was the party's 2002 nominee for executive, spoke of the need to "eliminate red tape that costs you time and money."
Dennis Callahan, an Annapolis Democrat, was careful not to criticize the Owens administration, whom he worked for as the county's director of recreation and parks for nearly eight years until stepping down last week to focus on the campaign.
Callahan attributed delays in the permit process to "low-level bureaucrats that are afraid they aren't going to get the backing of the higher-ups."