The Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) often testifies at County proceedings , presenting their Technical Staff Report (TSR), laying out whether or not they feel something a developer wants to do should be granted or not. Last year, the County Council unanimously passed a Bill that required the DPZ to be under oath, and subject to cross-examination, when presenting their TSR to the Zoning Board. The Zoning Board always is the local decision-maker in these proceedings, and recently, new legislation, seeks to apply this change to the Planning Board, when they are the final arbiters sometimes. It seemed like a simple correction of an oversight, and a needed edit for transparency and proper procedures to take place. Guess who showed up to oppose this at the Council’s latest work session? The Chair of the Planning Board, pointed out his reasons to oppose, which were disappointing but not surprising.
I have attended or watched countless Howard County Planning Board proceedings. There is a lot of concern over the lack of enforcement of their rules, and balanced application of rules to both sides, during their meetings and hearings.
There are two types of Planning Board proceedings, Quasi-judicial hearings, (QJH) where the Planning Board is the decision-maker, and public meetings (PM), where they are only advisory. There are different rules for each. When there is a QJH, the only consistent rule seems to be that the “rules” will not be followed. Inevitably, there is confusion over who can speak when, and on what topics. The Chair does not enforce the rules in the same way from one QJH to the next. I often watch, frustrated, while rules are allowed to be broken, or seem misunderstood by the Chair, over and over.
At a QJH, members of the public who wish to testify have to constrain their comments only to a set of criteria on which the Planning Board is to make their decision. These differ, based on certain regional zoning rules, and typically have to do with environmental, historical, or other preservation issues. I have often witnessed the Chair allowing enormous sway and leeway to developers’ attorneys in QJH, including allowing them to break the rules by speaking last in closing arguments. The rules state the opposite, that the opposition gets to make closing arguments last.
As I mentioned above, the rules for a PM are different. For example, public input is not constrained as with a QJH. Someone can testify that Mickey Mouse might run across their roof if they approve a development and they simply just can say that; however, I have seen the Chair constrain public input at a PM. I have seen him refuse to hear testimony at a PM about the specific problems a parcel faces, saying it is not relevant, and ask folks to keep to the subject at hand. People have attempted to testify about a huge effect and problem of a project on the existing neighbors, and that is deemed not a subject at hand? Often any history of the parcel or relations with the developer are disallowed in PM testimony (again, not supposed to limit this testimony at all), and deemed as not relevant because it isn’t about the County overall. The Petitioners are allowed unlimited time to present their case, and show about how lovely things will be, and point out all their specific plans, if given their requested change, but the public is not allowed to discuss individual and broad actual problems, in three minutes, unless it somehow relates to the County as a whole?
Developers get to talk about their particulars and how they are supposedly following every rule and are going to create nirvana. Why can’t the public counter those claims when they have information in disagreement? I have seen people have to wiggle their statements into being an example of countywide problems that could ensue, because they aren’t allowed to say they have issues with the specific requested change. It is nonsensical, and that is not in the rules of procedure for the Planning Board Public Meetings.
A huge reason why the public should get to question the DPZ is because the Planning Board regards the TSR so highly. I have heard the Members state, while deliberating, that a project must be approved, since the petitioner’s attorney and the Technical Staff Report by DPZ says it is following all the rules, and abiding by, or even doing more than, regulations require. Planning Board Members often say, they don’t believe they are allowed to limit or deny the project, because it is following the rules. GROAN. When I hear this, I realize those Planning Board Members do not even know why they are there.
The very reason they exist in the decision-making hearings is to take a look at the petitions, which wouldn’t even have gotten that far, if they weren’t legally-compliant, so that’s irrelevant, and see if the criteria for environmental protection or whatever other issues they are to adjudicate, have been met, regardless of regulations being followed. If it was just about regulations being followed, we wouldn’t have EXTRA criteria in QJH, for the Planning Board to decide if a particular set of regulation-abiding plans actually meet them.
I surely wish that the underlying foundation of just about every proceeding I see, wasn’t that MAXIMUM density must be allowed in a zone, regardless of the environmental, safety, historical or infrastructural impacts. It is ridiculous. Requiring maximum allowances of the underlying zone is not a given property right. These criteria exist to provide PLANNING, to provide oversight, to protect historical and environmental resources, and yes, that limits “rights”. Do folks even know what the word maximum means? Seems like it is treated as minimum instead, always. We all have property rights. All homeowners and the County have property rights, not just developers.
ALL parties and the public have to be under oath in these proceedings, no witness should be allowed not to be. DPZ is allowed to be questioned at Zoning Board Hearings. It is completely appropriate for them to also have to do so at Planning Board hearings. The Chair complained he couldn't keep order if this was added. He promised to forward questions to DPZ if asked That is not a solution. He said that happens now, but it does not, and it would not allow follow-up and assurance of full answers. We need to provide legislative changes that will apply to all Planning Board Chairs and Members into the future.
Instead of caving in, the Council should not just let the Planning Board Chair not have to actually preside over fully appropriate hearings. If there is a problem with doing that aspect of this job, then maybe let’s just get some Planning Board training and review provided instead. Frankly, we need it now anyway. Please let your Council Members know about how you feel about this new legislation at CouncilMail@howardcountymd.gov