Land-use panel draws criticism

The Baltimore Sun

Though a residents' committee charged with studying ways to better involve residents in land-use decisions agreed on 40 recommendations, the group is drawing criticism - from within and without - that it did not do enough.

The Public Engagement in Land Use Task Force, which was created by two County Council members, is scheduled to formally report its findings to the council May 27.

The group's 40 recommendations include:

*Creating a brochure in print and on the county government Web site that explains how to participate in the land-use decision process.

*Establishing a Web page and a handbook describing how residents can get information on land use.

*Providing a county official, when requested, at developers' required presubmission meetings to explain procedures to residents.

*Recording and broadcasting Planning Board and council meetings and work sessions on government TV and on the Internet.

But some community activists who were on the committee said the group's efforts were unduly influenced by members with development interests, lacked firm direction and did too little to give residents more influence in how county land is used.

"This was a remarkable initiative intended to strengthen the public's role in the land-use process," said Bridget Mugane, a committee member and president of the Howard County Citizens Association.

But the committee was "overbalanced with developers' attorneys," said Mugane, whose group met to discuss the issue last week in Hickory Ridge.

"I wanted to see the citizens as powerful as the developers in making land-use decisions," Mugane said. "I kind of lost that battle."

Cathy Hudson, another task force member, said the group's work "doesn't necessarily mean that anything will change."

Council members Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, and Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said they created the group in response to the many complaints about land-use decisions they heard from voters during the 2006 campaign.

"This was a recurring theme for us," Terrasa said.

Sigaty said, "Our goal was to harness the energy that we knew was out there."

At the HCCA meeting, Del. Elizabeth Bobo questioned Sigaty and Terrasa on the intentions and scope of the task force, asking whether the group was given a clear purpose and achieved it. She got no direct answer.

Grace Kubofcik, co-president of the county League of Women Voters, said she attended most of the meetings, though she did not serve on the committee.

She was "surprised" that neither Sigaty nor Terrasa attended meetings, and she said the citizen members needed numerous sessions just to catch up to development attorneys on the panel in understanding how the county's system works.

Still, she defended the result.

"There was a tremendous amount of agreement," Kubofcik said.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, said the group of about 35 people at the HCCA meeting is not the ones she is trying to reach.

"Many of you are land-use junkies," McLaughlin said. "I'm looking for ways to get people involved earlier."

"We need to find ways to make [the land-use process] easier to follow," she said, praising the task force, however for producing "some great recommendations."

William E. Erskine, the task force co-chairman and a development lawyer, did not attend the meeting, but said he has heard complaints.

The composition of the panel to include development interests was in line with the council's intent to have the range of viewpoints represented.

"What you see is the considered judgment of all the people on the panel," Erskine said. "I think I lost most of the things I voted for."

Tim Sosinski, an architect who served on the task force, said he believed the group was not overly influenced by development interests and was very productive.

"Some people are not happy because they did not get everything," Sosinski said. "The panel was amazingly sophisticated and amazingly positive."

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