Planning to streamline special request review process
County response to flooding, stormwater management also under department review
The Charles County Department of Planning and Growth Management will be rolling out a new process for applying for special exceptions, variances and zoning amendments that will help ensure that there is a sufficient gap between developers seeking approval for their plans and the county planning staff who review them.
Assistant chief of planning John Mudd explained that under the existing process, planning staff were working so closely with developers that in many cases they were “co-writing” applications or giving advice to the developers.
Going forward, however, PGM will try to limit its input to an initial advisory meeting with applicants to identify what Mudd described as “fatal flaws” or applications that are “stretching” the purpose of the variance application.
“That’s not the purpose or intent of those applications,” Mudd explained “It’s the applicant’s burden to provide information.”
Speaking to representatives from local developers and architectural firms during PGM’s quarterly public roundtable on Thursday, Mudd said that the
old process, while well-intentioned, simply took too much staff time.
PGM also hopes that the revised procedures will reduce spurious applications.
“The signal to the private sector is that you really have to double down now to prepare a good application on behalf of your clients,” Mudd said.
Special exceptions allow landowners to use a piece of property for purposes that the county has not previously approved for it. Variances are administrative exceptions to the county’s land use regulations.
Zoning amendments take the form of changes to the text of the county’s comprehensive zoning regulations and the maps that are used to identify the geographical boundaries of particular zones.
Planning and growth management director Steve Kaii-Ziegler emphasized that the change in procedures was not intended as a criticism of developers and engineering firms, but rather as a reflection of the department’s own changing procedures and processes.
Earlier this year, PGM completed an organizational overhaul that was designed to break down communication silos between departmental units and put people in positions that better suited their skills, as well as hire additional staff to reduce bottlenecks and improve public service.
The new organizational structure has separate divisions for transit, planning and review and inspection ser vices.
Following the reorganization, PGM announced that it was undertaking the first comprehensive overhaul of the county’s zoning ordinances and subdivision regulations since 1994.
The overhaul is expected to be completed in December 2020, plus another year to get legislative approval for the revised ordinances and regulations by the Charles County Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners.
Next month, PGM expects to roll out its new EnerGov software system for managing the county’s permitting process.
Kaii-Ziegler told the roundtable participants that PGM will be closed between Wednesday, Oct. 17, and Friday, Oct. 19, for the final transition between the “old, dreaded” software that the county has been using for decades and the new Energov system.
The new software will make it easier for county residents and developers to apply for permits, monitor their status and pay for them using a single online interface.
Another organizational change is under consideration between PGM and the Charles County Department of Public Works to help both organizations better respond to widespread stormwater management and drainage issues as a result of the heavy rains and flooding the county has experienced in recent years.
The county’s average annual rainfall is 40 inches; as of mid-September, Kaii-Ziegler said, the county had measured 49 inches of rain. Normally, by that time the average is 29 inches.
“There’s only so many places we can move water,” Kaii-Ziegler said. “It’s a massive issue, and we spend incalculable time dealing with it.”
Kaii-Ziegler said that the problem is exacerbated by the failure of homeowner’s associations to maintain or improve drainage ponds in neighborhoods — and the failure of residents to pay their HOA fees to enable the organizations to perform the necessary upkeep.
Further, many residents are adding impermeable surfaces to their yards without permits, such as concrete shed foundations or patios.
“Everyone’s pointing fingers,” Kaii-Ziegler said. “Meanwhile, it’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue.”
Older neighborhoods are particularly prone to flooding and sinkholes. Roads and driveways were designed to handle lower amounts of runoff, for example, and over time many property owners terrace their yards in ways that end up damming water onto adjacent properties. These actions result in sinkholes, collapsed drainage culverts and health hazards from standing water.
Mudd explained that the county would also be working with the county’s farmers to clarify when building permits are needed for renovations to existing barns and other agricultural buildings.
There has been confusion about when fullscale building permits are needed for a barn renovation, as opposed to just a zoning permit.
PGM wants to address the question as farmers increasingly seek to convert existing buildings into event venues for weddings and conferences, or to transform part or all of their farms into agro-tourism destinations.
A building permit is needed whenever a renovation is planned for a structure that has at least 200 square feet of floor space, Mudd said. There are also particular requirements for stormwater management systems on farms that must be met.
“A reasonable person would conclude that any building being built or renovated for regular use by the public ought to be safe,” Kaii-Ziegler said.