From Friends of Harford:
Legislative Bill 14-21 [UNTITLED] (As Introduced) was introduced in County Council session on May 6.
Public testimony is scheduled for
Date/Time: Tuesday, June 3, 2014 at 6:30 pm
Location: Council Chambers, 212 S. Bond St, Bel Air
Friends of Harford Position:
Friends of Harford strongly opposes Bill 14-21 [Untitled], the Harford County Charter Amendment that would eliminate both the County Council serving as the Board of Appeals and the Board of Appeals itself. Under this bill, appeals of Zoning decisions made by the Hearing Examiner could only be made directly to the Maryland Circuit Court, making Harford County the only county in Maryland without a Board of Appeals.
From the Harford County website: “The Board of Appeals is the Harford County Council who have delegated their authority to a Hearing Examiner. The Hearing Examiner’s decision is final unless appealed. The duties of the Board of Appeals is to hear rezoning cases, Special Exceptions and designated Special Development cases, appeals of decisions by the Zoning Administrator, expansion of nonconforming uses and variances from requirements of the Zoning Code.”
Under the current county charter, the Council sets the zoning law and oversees all changes that occur through time, including Comprehensive Rezoning and piecemeal rezoning requests. Now our elected officials want to pull back from any individual situation where they might have to make a real case decision and have to apply the zoning laws they enacted. We, the citizens, would be left without an elected representative to affect these decisions.
And the change is worse than that. The Council as Board of Appeals has the right not only to accept or reject the decision of the Hearing Examiner, but also to modify the conditions set by the Hearing Examiner. The Circuit Court may only rule on whether the case was properly handled. It has no authority legally to find the best result for the County as a whole.
Further, the money it would take to use the Court system to solve a zoning problem is prohibitive for the average person. In the present system, the applicant seeking a variance, special exception, etc. from the Hearing Examiner or Board of Appeals pays the expenses of the case. For an appeal to the Circuit Court, the person filing the appeal pays. Few residents, farmers or small businesses can afford to pay for $400/hour lawyers, expert witnesses and other court expenses to appeal no matter how negatively they may be affected by the decision.
The Hearing Examiner operates differently from the Circuit Court. After listening to all sides, he is empowered to make a clear decision for or against or, like the Council, he can impose conditions that may make the issue workable. However commendable the decisions of the present Hearing Examiner may be, asking him to handle all land use issues arising from the Council-approved Zoning Code, Master Plan, and Land Use Element Plan is far too much authority for one unelected person without the recourse of appeal to the Council acting as Board of Appeals. It makes that single unelected person the ultimate authority over the meaning and application of all land use rules in Harford and the arbiter of differences of opinion between the Executive and Legislative Branches of local government. Why then is the Council abdicating its responsibility and duty to serve the interests of the voters who elected them?
Some members of the Council still appear to believe they are restricted from talking to constituents on matters that might go to the Hearing Examiner. This is not true. In Bill 12-33, the Council members expanded their ability to talk to constituents on any zoning issue. The bill clarified that anyone may discuss any development or neighborhood issue up until the time an actual zoning case is filed, removing this issue as an excuse for passing Bill 14-21. Furthermore, this clarification amendment was approved by the voters in 2012 and is part of the Harford County Charter.
Certainly developers let our elected representatives know what they have in mind both before and after zoning laws or issues arise. We should be afforded the same courtesy. More points of view and information can only help in the final decision. The process has worked successfully ever since Harford’s charter government began in 1973.
If this Charter amendment takes effect, Harford will become the only county in Maryland without a Board of Appeals to protect its citizens’ interests. Our elected representatives must not abrogate their responsibility to be involved in these very important decisions. They have been elected to make decisions, not avoid them.
Under the Charter and the zoning code, the zoning Hearing Examiner serves effectively as an agent of the Council. Giving ultimate authority for zoning decisions to an appointed Hearing Examiner who may have NO zoning background, knowledge or experience AND who is not elected or responsible to the public at large, is completely irresponsible. The whole purpose of a zoning code is to protect the public. It is the Council who is accountable to the public — which is why they were given the power in the Charter to review the decisions of the Hearing Examiner.
If the Council will not take responsibility for reviewing zoning decisions by the Hearing Examiner, then they should not have any zoning authority at all – i.e., no authority to do comprehensive rezoning and no authority to appoint a Hearing Examiner. It makes no sense for them to be able to pass laws assigning a zoning category to any and all property in the county and then not have have the authority to review a zoning decision related to a particular property that they assigned a zoning category to in the first place.
Friends of Harford believes it is essential for there to be a Board of Appeals to protect the public.
We strongly oppose this proposed Charter amendment (Bill 14-21) and urge you to speak at the public hearing on June 3 at 6:30pm in the County Council Chambers. Remember to arrive before that, to sign up to speak. You’ll have 3 minutes as an individual, 5 minutes if representing a group. You may also email the Council with your concerns in addition to or in lieu of testimony.