Posted by pzguru on Tuesday, May 8, 2007
I have read several articles now about the new Ombudsman for the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning (reference the article titled “New Planning Official aims to reach, engage public” in the 5/3/07 edition of the HCTimes, and the Opinion page in the same edition).
Although the concept of having an “outreach” person is admirable, and Kimberley Flowers has excellent qualifications for the position, there is a larger underlying problem that needs to be dealt with in order for this initiative to be successful. That underlying problem is a persistent habit of the County Executive (present and former administration) and Councilpersons (present and former) interfering or meddling in the day to day business of the Department of Planning and Zoning (the Comp Lite fiasco certainly stands out as the most egregious example).
Now, you may ask, what exactly do I mean. What I mean is this. The Department of Planning and Zoning has taken a lot of misplaced blame for how the public perceives the planning process, whether it’s subdivision regulations, site plan review, variance applications, comprehensive planning and General Plan updates, and so on. The bottom line is that the staff of DPZ have always held a firm and fair line in the application of the regulations to the various plans and applications that are submitted to that Department. It is only when “the politicians” get involved, that the system breaks down. Even the Director of DPZ is subject to pressures from the County Executive or Councilpersons, and is sometimes forced to take action contrary to how he/she would/should. True, the Director serves at the pleasure of the CE, and is subject to confirmation by the Council. However, that does not mean that the CE or Councilpersons should interfere in the process to serve their own agenda, or that of a campaign contributor, or a weatlhy land owner. The rules are supposed to be applied equally to ALL persons in the County. Rule #1 of the government is that it shall not act in an arbitrary or capricious manner. It rarely turns out that way, as I can attest from my years in that Department. It’s a source of tremendous resentment when the staff would be forced to approve something, such as a waiver petition, contrary to past precedent, simply because the applicant was a person with connections. When neighbors or community activists would call to discuss how approval could be granted, the staff, including myself on many occasions, would have no explanation other than “we were over-ruled”. It’s no wonder the public doesn’t trust DPZ, but it’s not DPZ’s fault. The blame lies with any CE or Councilperson who abuses and violates the established laws and procedures for their own agendas.
If Ms. Flowers can overcome and help to end the history of politicization and manipulation of the zoning system that comes from outside (or above) DPZ, including from the person who appointed her, then, and only then, will the system be better understood and trusted. And, she will definitely have earned her pay. I wish her luck – she has a rough road ahead of her.