Commissioners kill site notification bill

Friday, July 14, 2006

A bill that would have required developers and builders to post signs alerting the public to future developments was voted down by the Charles County commissioners Tuesday after a heated debate.

The board’s three Democratic members voted against the measure while one Republican favored it and another abstained. The bill would have required signs to be posted at the site of future construction at least 90 days in advance of permits being issued, even in the case of regular, by-right development.

Commissioner Allan R. Smith (R), the bill’s sponsor and the only commissioner to vote in favor, expressed frustration with the board and alleged that they bowed to development industry influence.

‘‘I felt that this was a reasonable approach to give the citizens ... a voice in development early on” in the process, Smith said Wednesday. ‘‘We have just denied them that. Who are we looking out for, the developers or the citizens? ... I am extremely disappointed in my fellow commissioners.”

However, the board’s Democratic majority said they believed the law would put an undue enforcement burden on county planners, slow the development approval process further, flood the county planning office with citizen complaints and wouldn’t give those citizens any recourse to affect by-right development.

At Tuesday’s meeting on the bill, commissioners’ President F. Wayne Cooper (D) questioned the county’s planning director, David Umling, about the impact the law would have on his department.

‘‘We believe there will be a significant impact, at least initially,” Umling said. ‘‘How we deal with that and make the citizen happy, I just don’t know. ... It could very well” require another staff position.

‘‘We’re all going to be receiving comments and complaints,” Cooper mused. ‘‘If there is no recourse [for complaining citizens], I’m not sure what we’ve accomplished.”

‘‘I don’t see any great concern from the citizenry for this law,” said Commissioner Robert J. Fuller (D). He said it would merely add ‘‘another level of bureaucracy to an already congested process.”

‘‘I’m not going to fall on my sword for this,” Fuller said and moved to deny approval of the bill.

Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D) seconded Fuller’s motion, saying, ‘‘My opposition to this bill is not based on fear [of public comment]. We already have an effective way of communicating with the public.”

The Democratic arguments mirrored testimony given by representatives of the National Capital Building Industry Association and the Southern Maryland Realtors Association at a May public hearing on the bill. The Charles County Chamber of Commerce also sent a letter to the board echoing earlier opposition.

‘‘I disagree with the chamber’s comments,” Smith said. He dismissed the estimated $35,000 to $40,000 price tag for a new planning position to handle complaints as ‘‘the price of doing business” and urged the board to do ‘‘the right thing.”

Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly (R) expressed dissatisfaction with the way the bill was written, but she endorsed the concept of early notification for citizens. She suggested delaying a vote until the bill could be tweaked, possibly requiring the developers to meet with their future neighbors and discuss neighborhood concerns before proceeding with the planning approval process.

‘‘I’m not comfortable with throwing this out without a backup plan,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s comments drew fire from Fuller. In a clamorous exchange, Fuller accused Kelly of wanting to add another step to the planning approval process. Kelly shot back, saying that there is ‘‘more than just the Bob Fuller way” of doing things. Cooper admonished both commissioners to maintain order.

Cooper voted with Fuller and Patterson to deny approval of the bill, and Kelly abstained from the vote. Smith voted in favor.

On Wednesday, Smith said the vote blindsided him.

‘‘I never expected [the bill] would have ever been denied,” Smith said.

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