TESTIMONY TO COUNTY COUNCIL ON BILLS 17-18, 18-18, 19-18, AND RESOLUTION 6-18

TESTIMONY TO COUNTY COUNCIL ON BILLS 17-18, 18-18, 19-18, AND RESOLUTION 6-18

BACKGROUND

Soon after his election to the office of County Executive, Steve Schuh appointed a Planning and Zoning Transition Committee of two community leaders and nineteen representatives of the development industry.

That committee submitted a fourteen-page list of policy recommendations. Some were common-sense proposals to increase efficiency and reduce burdensome regulations that had no public benefit. Others were consistent with Schuh’s promise to spur growth in the county. 

The most troublesome recommendation was that Small Area Plans not be considered as part of the General Development Plan process. Schuh’s adoption of that proposal has created a sense that communities have no voice in this administration, but it has also left developers without the roadmap they need to plan projects with community support.

One example is Crownsville. The Crownsville Small Area Plan was ignored by the county, and that’s why county officials were able to mislead Chesapeake Sports and Entertainment Group into believing that the Crownsville community would accept a stadium, a hotel, and restaurants in their rural agricultural community. That failure of leadership is why the developer is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars planning and promoting a project that belongs elsewhere.

Now we are in an election year. I, a south county farmer with a community organizing background, am running against the county executive with the slogan, “Putting Communities First.” I have pledged to confront fiscally and environmentally irresponsible development in the 2019 General Development Plan, have criticized the county executive for his failure to staff our schools, police, and fire departments at levels appropriate for our growing population, and have criticized development incentives like the $36 million tax break for the Live! Casino Hotel. 

The Schuh campaign discovered that the “growth by leaps and bounds” language from its fall campaign letter does not resonate, and on February 5 the county executive made a rare visit to these chambers to read a prepared statement, pledging to implement a new smart growth agenda. He followed that up with a letter to community associations pledging to “slow growth.”

The four pieces of legislation before you tonight are a part of that election-year pivot from spurring to slowing growth, and they were clearly drafted in haste. I encourage you to consider the impact that each will have on our communities, our business climate, our government services, and the quality of life that brings residents and visitors to Anne Arundel County.

 

COMMENTS ON THE BILLS

Bill 19-18 is good policy that community residents have requested for years. It simply expands the area in which residents must be notified of an application for a variance or rezoning. It increases from 175 to 300 feet from the applicant property, giving more impacted neighbors the information they need to be heard. I support this change.

Bill 18-18 should be amended. The ban against variances in the Odenton Town Center reflects the county executive’s habit of picking winners and losers from within our business community. Odenton Town Center is an important economic development project that is supported in the Small Area Plan and General Development Plan. Arbitrarily taking away the right of the developers to work with the county and the community to adapt the project to meet market and community needs is government over-reach.  We should be promoting collaboration between developers and communities, not prohibiting it.  That language should be removed from the bill.

The remaining language in the bill sets forth what appear to be common-sense criteria to guide the Board of Appeals and Administrative Hearing Officer in the granting of zoning special exceptions. These conditions may, however, have unintended consequences. Their impacts should be assessed after hearing from community and business leaders.

Bill 17-18 will have no impact on communities other than to create an administrative bottleneck. It establishes a moratorium on administrative rezonings starting September 1 of this year and ending when the draft General Development Plan is submitted or January 1, 2019, whichever comes first. Forthcoming development projects that require rezoning will simply accelerate their applications to get them in before the start of the moratorium, or wait until the draft GDP is presented.

If the intent of the legislation is to prevent all rezonings until Comprehensive Rezoning takes place, the moratorium should begin immediately and end upon passage of the Comprehensive Rezoning that follows approval of a community-driven General Development Plan. I would not advocate such a policy without carefully evaluating the potential impact on communities, developers, existing infrastructure, and our environment.

Resolution 6-18 requires the planning and zoning officer to certify that the council’s Comprehensive Rezoning Bill that follows passage of the General Development Plan (GDP) is consistent with that plan.

This charter amendment is attractive to those of us who want to strengthen enforcement of the General Development Plan. County councils have a history of ignoring the General Development Plan when putting together the Comprehensive Rezoning that follows, because their members are pressured by landowners in their districts to upzone property as a way to enhance value. That’s where the plan for our county’s future starts to unravel. We are fortunate that Councilman Trumbauer’s charter amendment will require community notice before these kinds of zoning changes take place.

The question raised by this resolution is who can be trusted to judge whether the zoning decisions are consistent with the GDP. Is it the county executive’s planning and zoning officer, or is it the county council?

History suggests that we should trust neither. I believe that we should bring policy experts and stakeholders together to look more closely at how the GDP is used in our county. This executive’s office of law has argued that the GDP is simply “guidance.” Others have stated that it should only be deviated from in “extraordinary circumstances.”  I support the latter, but question whether this resolution is the best mechanism, since it only applies to the Comprehensive Rezoning and not to subsequent development decisions.

If, in fact, the GDP is a document that will be adhered to in the eight years following its passage, we must ensure that communities have a voice in the process of creating it.

The county’s eight GDP listening sessions that were designed to replace small area planning failed to address substantive issues. An online poll could have gathered similar data at a fraction of the cost. We must engage the small areas, and we must start with the specific recommendations they made in their current Small Area Plans.

 

A CONCERN ABOUT QUOTAS AND POLITICS 

I must comment on a part of the new Schuh “smart growth” agenda that is not before the county council tonight, but should be.

The county executive pledged to reduce the number of development variance approvals by fifty percent. Those variances should be approved or denied based on the merits of each case by the administrative hearing officer. Quotas for approvals may seem like a rational response to public frustration with unplanned growth, but they are not a smart growth strategy. I suspect that the hearing officer resisted this kind of pressure from the county executive’s office, probably costing him his job.

Mr. Schuh removed our highly respected hearing officer last month without explanation. He replaced him with a man whose career in law was damaged by the poor judgement he exhibited as John Leopold’s county attorney, a man who will be indebted to the county executive. The county council observed without comment.

Most of the companies whose businesses depend on the rulings of the administrative hearing officer have contributed to the county executive’s re-election campaign fund. It’s unfortunately the way political campaigns are funded in this county. The only firewall between these campaign donors and the county executive is the administrative hearing officer. When that position becomes a political appointment, the wall comes down.

By combining the new quota for denials with the appointment of a political ally as arbiter of development approvals, County Executive Schuh has sent a chilling message to the business community and our neighborhoods. There is a growing perception that we are a “pay-to-play” county.

We saw the process at its worst when the county reversed its opposition to the Turtle Run at Deep Cove project in the Critical Area after Snyder Development wrote campaign checks to Steve Schuh. Thanks to community groups, environmental groups, and the Critical Area Commission, the collusion between county and developer was uncovered and the project was recently blocked.

I worked in Chicago, and know what machine politics looks like. It’s bad for the business climate and it’s bad for communities. It’s something worth fighting against.

The county council should take action to restore an independent arbiter to the development approval process.

Posted on 02 Apr 2018, 01:58 - Category: Campaign News

 RSS
By Authority of Friends of Steuart Pittman, VIrginia Clagett Treasurer
Campaign Websites by Online Candidate