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Planning for Hopefulness

A great sense of hope was felt a few weeks ago, as the new Board of Education was installed. The whole room could feel the happiness. It was as if the walls themselves were sighing in relief. As the delightful evening of the swearing-in of our new Board of Education members progressed, one could see they were hitting the ground running. First was the vote on the new Chair Cynthia Vaillancourt and Vice Chair Bess Altwerger. In case you missed it, the new Board also made these changes: No longer can the Superintendent hire attorneys that represent the school system or the Board, the Board will be doing that now. That inappropriate Foose appointment of Ann DeLacy to oversee budget decisions she was part of making? That was retracted, and let’s have a whole new audit while we’re at it on sole source contracts. Also, let’s guarantee that special education parents and SECAC have a voice on those decisions now too. More information will be required to be given to the Board also. Wow, can we expect actually following MD law regarding public information acts now? One hopes. One also wonders what fodder the new Ombudsman report on the HCPSS non-compliance with the Public Information Act will be seen, requiring personnel or at least policy changes.

It’s a whole new world, and one in which many groups and people feel they were part of making, so it feels especially fantastic.

Another piece of good news lately is that there were two local bills where storm water management issues in bills were addressed by the Council. Council Bills 79 and 80 passed earlier this month, which made stronger definitions of a 100 year storm, and disallowed waivers and variances in the flood plain, respectively. I am pleased to see some amount of change to address flooding concerns, but I believe we are still far from having done enough to hold off serious damage from the next bad storm, which I personally believe will arrive in less than ten years, and not in 1000 like many predict. Just basic statistical math is not being presented accurately regarding how one derives a percentage of probability over a length of time and not each year.

I hope that more analysis and engineering ideas continue to be explored, to further safeguard our County areas from flooding. I am particularly frustrated that the Lacey project, right above Main Street, will not have to adhere to these new regulations. These bills were passed as emergency measures and noted as such therein. Thus, why is there grandfathering in CB80 which disallows cutting into steep slopes and having waivers and variances in the flood plain? If the Council placed recognition that these are emergency measures, then why allow plans to continue that aren’t completed yet, to slide through? Legally, previously-obtained waivers and variances COULD be taken away, as these are emergency measures, in the name of public safety. I often get frustrated when the answer to the question of why are we not providing safety measures, is that developers deserve predictability and they might sue. Well, I say, let them sue. It is clearly outlined in the law that the right to change regulations is allowed when done for public safety. The law is clear, and frankly, the odds of a developer suing the County are slim, especially on a black and white legal issue like this one. This issue reminds me of the Council kindly stepping up to the plate to force some oversight of the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS). We need the same work to oversee the Planning Board.

The Planning Board approved the Lacey project, which has those now disallowed waivers and cutting into steep slopes that the Council sought to address. Well after the July flood, and many reports and testimonies of caution to not deforest anymore above Main Street, the Planning Board approved this development with all its exceptions in place. It boggles the mind how anyone could define someone’s property rights to include this level of extreme extra profitability over safety. YOU ARE NOT entitled to the maximum, most profitable use imaginable on your land IF IT HURTS OTHERS. That is what PLANNING is supposed to address. Our Planning Board needs to do actual planning, which takes time and education. I know these are appointed volunteer positions, but their decisions can have a huge effect on quality of life around the developments they seem to rubber-stamp without organizational oversight. No one seems to be taking a birds’ eye view of things, and that’s what planning is. They need to be educated on all the factors that go into their decisions. I too often have seen proceedings where they do not seem to know what their job even is. That may sound harsh, but believe me, it is accurate. I have attended several Planning Board hearings that were quasi-judicial in nature. Members did not know what they were supposed to do, and violated their own rules many times. Their obvious bias towards developer attorneys reached absurd levels, at the Lacey property hearings, where they allowed Attorney Erskine for the Lacey property to add new evidence during the hearing, but when Attorney Taylor tried to do so, in opposition, it was disallowed. At least we know, Taylor has some obvious and clear appeal points to make in Circuit Court, so there is a small hope that maybe a HoCo Judge, sitting in the Courthouse above Main Street, may realize how ridiculous this all has become and make the right decision.

Not unlike having to step in and fix problems with the HCPSS when the prior Board of Education was not doing their job, the County Council’s recent bills will give some proper oversight to a “lack of Planning” Board. It is too bad though that they didn’t disallow grandfathering of some of the more egregiously bad development decisions lately. FYI These “Planning” Board members appropriately voted NO on the absurdly dangerous and unnecessary aspects of the Lacey Development during those hearings, Ms. Easley and Mr. Coleman, kudos to them.

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