Citizens Cry Foul Over Zoning Head Change

BERLIN – The apparent demotion of Worcester County Zoning Administrator Kelly Henry to a position overseeing county mapping employees has some citizens seeing a darker purpose behind the change, which they say could make it easier for developers to slide environmentally-problematic projects by county staff meant to act as gatekeepers.

“Her job was to interpret the code and decide what the code actually said and apply that decision to whatever was in front of her. It’s an extremely important role,” said Ed Ellis, a past member and president of the Worcester County Planning Commission who worked closely with Henry as zoning administrator. “She was the most effective employee in the county zoning department I had any exposure to. She was tough and fair and she was honest.”

In an email to The Dispatch in response to a reporter’s question, Ed Tudor, head of the county’s new consolidated planning department, wrote, “The extent of Kelly’s knowledge was the very reason she was perfect for the new position, for she also has considerable experience in aspects of emergency planning and in fact enjoys that type of work.”

Kim Quillin, a county resident and volunteer with Assateague Coastal Trust, questioned why Henry was moved to a different position when the layoffs and consolidation of the department were touted by supporters as improving efficiency.

“What they’ve done is change the structure of our county government,” said Quillin. “This is a sign they’re not really leveling with us. Why would you replace someone who is good at her job with someone less experienced?”

In response, Tudor wrote, “The consolidation of the three departments brought with it a need to combine and organize the many emergency planning and response functions and the data and mapping needs of the three former departments under one consolidated division.”

Ellis described Henry as extremely well informed and objective in his years of working with her while he sat on the planning commission.

“I’ve heard much grumbling over the years from developers because she often made decisions they felt were against their best interests,” Ellis said.

The zoning administrator makes complex decisions that have a huge impact, he said.

“She’s the best at what she was doing. She was very respected,” said Quillin.

“The new zoning administrator, Jennifer Grasso, obviously does not have as many years of experience but neither did Kelly when she assumed the position some years back.  Few if any in the department do other than the senior staff,” wrote Tudor. “Mrs. Henry trained Mrs. Grasso and served as her direct supervisor ever since her employment with Worcester County. Mrs. Grasso has demonstrated the skills necessary to perform the job. In addition to her master’s degree in environmental planning, her time spent reviewing site plans, rezoning requests and text amendments all contribute to her skill set.”

Nonetheless, Ellis said there’s a learning curve.

“If the new person is as smart as Kelly, as educated on the issues as Kelly, it’s going to take a long time for her to get up to speed, as would anybody,” said Ellis.

Ellis described Henry as a victim of the “developer orchestrated consolidation” of the planning, development review and permitting, comprehensive planning and environmental programs departments.

Quillin called the move a window into behind the scenes maneuvering by developers.

“The truth is, there’s a lot of dirt going on,” she said.            “It’s just easier for developers. There’s greater leniency in getting permits if there’s someone there who doesn’t have all the nuances of the code.”

According to Tudor, the change is linked to the countywide rezoning. “The new zoning administrator worked extensively with the director and deputy director as they prepared the draft zoning and subdivision control article and draft zoning maps.  She compiled information and performed analysis on a wide variety of topics in that endeavor.  She will be able to start work in her new position with a new code which she assisted in the preparation of and with which she is thoroughly familiar,” Tudor wrote.

The County Commissioners have not signed off on the details of the reorganization.

“I think any developer orchestrated change in the planning and zoning department of Worcester County is not a good thing for the environment or the county itself,” said Ellis. “To me it’s a sad commentary that politicians that ran on a platform of adopting a master plan have apparently sold out to developers’ interests and are now supporting what I consider to be the gutting of the planning and zoning department of Worcester County.”

“Mrs. Grasso is quite adept at her work, thorough and fair.  There should be absolutely no concern on anyone’s part that projects will receive less scrutiny than in the past,” Tudor wrote. “The new assignments are forward looking and deepen our bench in many areas.”