Plan­ning to stream­line spe­cial re­quest re­view process

County re­sponse to flood­ing, stormwa­ter man­age­ment also un­der depart­ment re­view

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By PAUL LAGASSE pla­gasse@somd­news.com

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.

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