Critical Rezoning Process Long Way From Complete

SNOW HILL – Little progress has been made on the comprehensive rezoning, over a year and a half after the new comprehensive plan was approved, and nine months since the County Commissioners directed staff to make the work a priority.

Staff and elected officials appeared reluctant to discuss the slow development of the new zoning code, with the commissioners seemingly unsure of the status of the work.

“They are just so busy up there with all the other things they do on a daily basis,” said County Commissioners Louise Gulyas. 

Commission President Jim Purnell added, “We knew it was going to take a long time. So many people are going to be affected one way or the other.”

Commissioner Linda Busick acknowledged the pace is a concern.

“We’re all aware it’s moving slower than we expected. We do know the law has to be changed, these maps have to be changed,” Busick said. “We would have liked to see it move a lot more quickly but they’ve had many stumbling blocks along the way, a lot of things in the pipeline for them to work on.”

Commissioner Virgil Shockley previously predicted the work could take as little as four months.

“Everyone who campaigned last November basically said we’re going to do this and we haven’t done it,” said Shockley.

The commissioners have never been able to agree on a timeline for the work, with the Worcester County Planning Commission suggesting completion in a year to 18 months. Busick said she was told it would take far longer.

“It could be anywhere between a two- to five-year process, I’m told,” Busick said.

“I’m pushing for it to be to us by the end of January,” Gulyas said.

Ed Tudor, director of the Development Review and Permitting Department, said he could not speculate on when the work on the new zoning code would be complete.

“We try to work on it when we can. It’s not much,” Tudor said. “We’ve just not had a whole lot of time.”

Other business, much of it unexpected, must also be dealt with, Tudor said. The day-to-day work of his department must go forward, and some of that work only he can do.

Tudor offered the reintroduced Green Fund bill as an example. The bill is being considered in the Maryland General Assembly’s special session, and it is part of his job to follow that kind of legislation and report on it to the commissioners.

“I spent most of yesterday and half of today analyzing it,” Tudor said. “I was hoping it would be January, but bam, it comes up now.”

Tudor has also had to contend with writing legislation, he said, including the temporary county moratorium on adult-oriented businesses, and pending permanent legislation.

“We weren’t expecting to have to do that,” he said.

Additional staff would not speed the process, according to the county.

“There’s no sense in hiring new staff because they don’t know [the county],” Gulyas said.

Tudor agreed, saying, “Everyone’s codes are different. Everyone’s system is different. Everyone’s language is different. So much background goes into it.”

As the comprehensive rezoning work slowly progresses, some effects of the delay are manifesting elsewhere.

The planning commission voted at its early September meeting to ask the commissioners for a moratorium on new rezoning cases until the comprehensive rezoning is complete, but has since decided to ask for less drastic remedies, Chair Carolyn Cummins said this week.

“I showed [the letter] to everyone at the last meeting and they approved,” Cummins said. “The letter I wrote didn’t say moratorium.”

The commission has had some rezoning cases that would have gone a bit differently, or been taken care of, without the normal site rezoning process if the comprehensive rezoning had been accomplished.

Some of the estate-zoned land, which the comprehensive plan eliminates, has come into the county planning department with site plans. Now that those plans are in process, the zoning is grandfathered in and cannot be changed.

The sub-division ordinance also needs to be changed, said Cummins, and in some ways she feels that this is a more important alteration.

“Since the philosophy really changed from being sub-divisions to communities, there’s some provisions in the sib-division ordinances that need to get changed,” Cummins said. “I see the sub-division ordinance as more critical than the rezoning.”

Without the comprehensive rezoning, it is difficult to bring alive, or enforce, the comprehensive plan. The plan’s provisions will not exist as anything more than ideas on paper without a code change. 

“It does take some of the teeth out of it,” said Cummins.

Some fear that the delay could roll on into the future.

“It’s imperative the commissioners kick it up a notch and find a way to move the re-zoning along. I understand the commissioners have their hands full right now worrying about budget shortfalls pending the state’s special session, but then it’s right into the holiday season and next thing you know it’s the first of the year and the commissioners are busy with the new budget,” said Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips. “By the time they finish the new budget, everyone will be gearing up for the 2010 campaigns and nobody’s going to want to talk.”

This, said Phillips, is what happened during the 2006 election campaign; after the comprehensive plan was approved, the commissioners did not push the rezoning because they were campaigning for the fall elections. “Nobody wanted to touch that with a 10-foot pole,” she said.

Phillips suggested handing the rezoning off to the planning commission.

“Let them work out the details with staff and move the project along,” Phillips said. “Then the Planning Commission can bring a completed package to the commissioners for a public hearing and final approval. The word of the day is ‘delegate.’”