Sunday, June 04, 2006

Developing a new way...

To almost everyone involved, it's pretty clear that the zoning and development in Howard County is seriously screwed up. In addition to systemic problems -- duplicative duties of the Planning Board and Zoning Board, quasi-legal proceedings that foster confrontation and citizen disenfranchisement, and outdated, ineffectual zoning codes and development regulations -- the process is full of other pitfalls that have virtually eliminated citizens' faith and trust in it.

For instance, the fact that the Zoning Board, comprised of the five council members, can when wearing different hats accept money, in the form of campaign contributions, from developers. Moreover, there are legitimate questions about the lack of accountability faced by the Planning Board, the members of which are appointed to five year terms. Finally, if you haven't heard talk about conspiracies or overly-comfy relationships between developers and non-elected, non-appointed county officials (read: bureaucrats), then you haven't been listening.

All of this points to the fact that something should be done about the way we allow development to occur -- not how we grow, but how we decide how and when we grow. Some have spoken about redoing the development system, notably Joshua Feldmark, Democratic candidate for District 4, who has made it one of his major campaign themes (appealing to the ever-expanding wonky technocrat demographic).

So far, however, talk about zoning changes has been just that. On the heels of her thus far successful Comp Lite referendum movement, former councilwoman Angela Beltram is engaging in more than just talk.

Now she and supporters believe it is time to make fundamental changes in how zoning matters are decided. At the heart of the proposal is a plan to replace the Zoning Board with an independent zoning officer.

The process now, Beltram says, is heavily political and too often swayed by special interests and the popularity of projects.

...The appointed person would be a land-use expert and would have no political or economic stake in the county, Beltram says.

"It allows one to step back ... with the ability to consider issues coldly," she said. "It would result in less pressure by special interests and result in an independent analysis of the facts."

What Beltram is proposing already exists in a similar form in Montgomery and Baltimore Counties. Whether this system is better or worse than what we have now, I can't say. I also can't say how I feel about it -- probably because I've only given it about five minutes of thought.

I can see how the community would benefit from more impartiality in the zoning process, but wasn't that one of the supposed benefits of bringing in Design Collective to run the charrette? They were an independent, outside actor coming into Columbia to simply translate the vision of the citizens into a workable master plan. Yet, they've been labeled as in cahoots with General Growth and the Department of Planning and Zoning and predisposed to more development and density.

Clearly, I need to know more about an independent zoning officer before I can pass judgment on the merits of this proposal. That said, impartiality is a myth.

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