Ulman moves to speed up project review process

The Baltimore Sun

Because development is big business in Howard County and generates tax revenue, elected officials pay attention when the industry is hurting.

After complaints from builders about how long it takes to get projects through the county review process, County Executive Ken Ulman is moving to find ways to speed things up.

Industry complaints are that with sales slow, credit now harder to find and engineering and construction costs rising, growing bureaucratic delays in the processing of development plans are hurting business and affecting county revenues.

Home buyers are having a harder time finding and holding on to mortgage loan commitments, and processing delays are jeopardizing sales and boosting costs for materials, and interest.

"The process has gotten much longer," said Howard Saslow, a custom home builder for 13 years who was one of about 30 business owners who met with Ulman recently in the George Howard Building.

The executive told them that he's named Thomas E. Butler, a 22-year county employee and engineer, who is a bureau chief in public works, as deputy director of Planning and Zoning to make changes. One of the two current deputy directors, Stephen Lafferty, who is also a member of the House of Delegates, has been moved to oversee special projects.

Ulman said he made the move to help improve the process.

"It's just not working as efficiently as it could," he said.

The county executive said he wanted someone with an engineering background, and Butler seems to fill the bill. Department Director James Irvin considers him a "very valuable" employee, who was heavily involved in capital budget projects and knows a lot about construction and organization.

Butler said he was asked to "roll up your sleeves and see what you can add to the process."

Michael Harrison, director of government affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, welcomed the action.

"[Ulman] has demonstrated an understanding of the financial impact the market is having on the county," Harrison said. "Some builders are having problems with excessive delays and that is impacting our bottom line and the county's bottom line."

Builders are worried that delays will grow because of more stringent storm water management and forest conservation reviews by state agencies, Harrison said.

The county is treating plans for his single-house projects like they were for an entire subdivision, Saslow said.

"It's gone from 30 days to six to 12 months," he said.

Saslow recently lost a buyer who had a loan that expired and could not find a new one in the current atmosphere.

"I'm losing the trust that my customer places in me," he said. "I can't give them accurate times and estimates. It makes operating a business incredibly unpredictable."

The meanings of 'no'

The first House of Representatives vote on the $700 billion bailout made for some strange political alliances, especially for Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a liberal Democrat who represents most of Howard County.

Not only was Cummings' "no" vote matched by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland's most conservative Republican, but it met with the approval of Michael Hargadon, the little-known Republican dentist running against Cummings this year.

"I applaud his vote, but not his reasons for voting against it," Hargadon said in an e-mail.

Cummings explained in a statement that he opposed the bill because it lacked adequate "oversight and accountability measures, assistance for the families who are in jeopardy of losing their homes due to predatory lending, and safeguards against golden parachutes for Wall Street executives."

Cummings acknowledged that a strong response from the government was necessary and, in the days after the vote, advocated for new legislation that would include the protections he wanted.

Later, after the Senate approved a revised bill, Cummings changed his mind and voted to approve the bailout on Oct. 3, but even then, he expressed grave doubts.

"There is no guarantee that this recovery package will work," Cummings said in a statement. "But what it will do is keep things from getting worse while we have time to go back to the drawing board and craft legislation that brings reforms we really need."

Hargadon, who has a Libertarian bent, came at the question from a more ideological angle, though his perception of the injustice implicit in the bailout matched Cummings'. He pointed out that the same Bush administration officials who asked for the bailout had assured Congress last spring that no more would be needed after the Bear Stearns rescue.

"Maybe the economy crashes with no bailout, but maybe it crashes WITH the bailout," Hargadon said in his e-mailed statement. "The reality is no one really knows. What I do know is it is completely unfair to steal the hard-earned money of average Americans and give it away to people who made bad decisions."

After Cummings' switch, Hargadon was even more irate.

"The bill has not been made better. It is actually far worse," he said in a statement, referring to the extra $150 billion in borrowing tacked on by the Senate.

He would not have changed his mind, Hargadon said, this time attacking Cummings.

"Congressman Cummings chose to do the wrong thing," he said, a move he attributed to political expediency.

Cummings saw it differently.

"This legislation is very far from perfect - but it is a necessary start," he concluded.


Tuesday is the final day for registering to vote in the Nov. 4 presidential election.

County election board administrator Betty Nordaas said people can register tomorrow, on Columbus Day, or until 9 p.m. Tuesday at the board's offices, at 8900 Columbia 100 Parkway, Ellicott City.

Mailed registrations that are postmarked by Oct. 14 also will be accepted.

Nordaas said she has obtained extra voting machines and electronic poll books to help cut down crowding on Election Day if lines are long.

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