Exhibiting bipartisan cooperation in an election season, the Howard County Council has approved a package of four zoning reform bills designed to make it easier for citizens to participate in zoning cases.
The primary bill would authorize the Zoning Board to suggest voluntary mediation in deciding on development plans for mixed-use or seniors projects -- not for decisions on whether a zoning change is legally justified.
The others would require larger, two-sided signs placed on land where development is proposed, to make meetings about development more convenient to attend and to give the public at least two weeks to examine technical reports submitted to the Planning Board or the Zoning Board. If new material is submitted in rebuttal during a hearing, either side may request a mandatory two-week delay.
Action on the bills was taken at the council's final meeting before September.
The final vote on mediation was 4-1, with western county Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a frequent defender of landowners' rights, in opposition.
Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican running for county executive, voted for all the bills despite earlier criticism of the package.
He said he would prefer that if mediation is used, people "experienced in zoning matters" would be chosen.
Merdon also said at the Monday afternoon meeting that he is uneasy making zoning law changes so close to the election. The council is not allowed by law to consider zoning changes after the Sept. 12 primary election.
"The founders imposed that requirement to avoid situations where decisions are being made for political reasons," Merdon said. "I'm hesitant to make changes on the last possible day. If it weren't an election year, we'd come back and fine-tune this legislation."
Added Merdon: "I think the concepts are good."
Councilman Guy Guzzone, a primary architect of the legislation, said his amendments sought to make it clear that mediation would not be an option when the Zoning Board makes basic decisions about whether a zoning change is legally justified.
He suggested that the next County Council, which takes office in December, change the law further to create a separate, two-part proceeding.
In the first part, the board would decide if a zoning change is justified by a change in the neighborhood or a mistake in the zoning maps. If a change is justified, the board would open a new phase of the hearing to decide -- with mediation a possibility--what new zone or use of the land would be most appropriate.
"If nothing else, it will save an enormous amount of time," said Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.
The bills approved Monday take effect in 60 days.
The council's other two Democrats praised the package.
"This package of legislation is a step moving in the right direction," said Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat running for county executive. "We're elected to do our jobs, and I intend to keep doing my job."
Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat appointed to the council in April, said: "It's important for us to continue to do our job. We need to continue to move forward."
Ball is running for a full four-year term on the council.
Feaga, recalling that the county adopted zoning within his lifetime, chafed at the restrictions and unpredictability frequent changes in law have imposed on landowners trying to provide for their families or retirement.
"It doesn't get better," said Feaga, 73. "It gets worse. I can't support" the mediation bill.
However, he did vote for larger, more visible public signs.
The Democrats introduced their package of zoning reform bills after backing off their main thrust -- a proposal to change the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process into a more frequent review of smaller areas.
Critics panned that idea as too big a change on short notice.
Merdon criticized the bills when they were introduced, calling them "a false solution."
"This package of bills is nothing more than window dressing to cover up [Democrats] poor voting record on zoning issues," he said.
Feaga had denounced the bills as "a political-year stunt."
None of that rancor surfaced at Monday's meeting.
The council also unanimously approved a resolution authorizing condemnation to obtain 0.237 acres from Marty Anthony Howard needed to build a $705,000 traffic roundabout at Highland and Triadelphia Mill roads in Clarksville.
The intersection has been the scene of 18 accidents, including one fatality, in the past six years, and members said it is a public safety hazard that must be fixed.
Originally, county public works officials had sought condemnation authorization for two slivers of land to widen the intersection for the project, but they reached agreement with Thomas M. Bradford, one of two landowners.
Tina Hackett, the county's real estate negotiator, confirmed that Bradford bargained for a repaved driveway and border fence for his 5-acre homestead in exchange for his 0.182 acres.
Hackett said Howard wants to cooperate, but he is waiting until his subdivision plans for a 10-home development on the intersection's northeast corner get technical approval before agreeing to cede the land for the roundabout.
"He's not at a technical-approval point with planning and zoning where he'll feel safe," Hackett said.