Howard County Council members have created a 24-member citizens task force to examine and increase public access to land-use decisions.
Before voting Monday night to form the Public Engagement in Land Use Planning Task Force, the council unanimously chose Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson as council chairman for the next year, replacing Democrat Calvin Ball of east Columbia.
Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty of west Columbia is the new vice chairman, and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa of Kings Contrivance is Zoning Board chairman. Both are Democrats. Greg Fox, the council's only Republican, remains Liquor Board chairman. The five council members normally rotate leadership posts among the majority-party members each December.
In a half-hour meeting that was perhaps the shortest session this year, all the votes were unanimous with little discussion.
But that doesn't mean the decisions haven't raised a few hackles, especially over the composition of the group created to recommend by May 5 more ways for the public to be involved in land-use decisions.
Nothing has been more contentious in Howard County than development, which is why Sigaty and Terrasa decided to create the task force.
It is the third such citizens group created this year. Earlier task forces were formed to study property taxes for the elderly and possible creation of a horse park in the county.
"Really, what we're looking at is opportunities for public engagement in the [development] process," Terrasa said, but not a complete overhaul of the regulations.
"We want people intimately involved in the process to comment on it," she said. "People on this group will understand what the frustrations are." Terrasa wants the members named and meeting this month.
Each of the five council members would appoint three task force members, with the League of Women Voters and the Howard County Citizens Association each getting to name one member. The county bar association would name two zoning experts - one development specialist and another who normally represents residents.
The other five members would come from the business community, including one each representing the Chamber of Commerce, homebuilders and Realtors. Two positions added Monday night would be filled by the county's Economic Development Authority and the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks. No members have been selected.
The last-minute changes created doubts in Angela Beltram, a former council member who led a petition drive against a comprehensive rezoning process called "Comp Lite" several years ago.
She said she's worried that development interests will gain the upper hand.
"As far as I'm concerned it's the same old, same old," she said. "You don't know who the council is going to pick. They could pick all businesspeople, too. Economic development - why are they in there?"
"The business community is worried about the same thing," Watson said. "It's our goal to balance the committee."
Watson and Terrasa said the group needs business representation to make sure new ideas are practical and won't cause unforeseen results.
"At some point, they just have to trust their elected leaders," Watson said.
Grace Kubofcik, co-president of the county chapter of the League of Women Voters, said she worked in a small committee that discussed how the task force should operate, and declared herself satisfied with the changes.
"I think it will work out OK," she said. "It's extremely important that we have both citizens and business" involved.