I often receive questions about zoning processes. There are some basics that, if understood, can make it easier for the general public to understand zoning and the role it plays in a community.
The first question that I receive often is about countywide zoning. Garrett County is the only county in Maryland that does not have a countywide zoning ordinance. Traditionally Garrett County citizens have been very strong advocates of property rights and have adamantly fought any attempt at countywide zoning. The question of countywide zoning has come up repeatedly, especially when the county has faced the advent of an industry that has caused some concern. In fact, sample county zoning ordinances have been written that focus on minimal controls. However, those were unpopular as well, as most individuals see any attempt at land use control as an infringement on their rights.
Another question frequently posed has to do with the purpose of zoning. This often comes on the heels of the question about the extent our ordinances cover. Unfortunately, people seldom want zoning because it may infringe on their rights; however, they are very much in favor of it if their neighbor does something that they feel the county should stop. At the base of the pro-zoning argument is property values. Any land use is allowed in an unzoned area – any land use at all. Most people do not really stop to think about that until something goes in beside or near them that they find objectionable and feel would lower their property values. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, as they say. One neighbor may have no objection to a chicken farm, a strip mine, a race track or an adult business operating beside them, but others may. Zoning attempts to identify those land uses that have a community impact and prohibit or reduce that impact. The means zoning regulations use to accomplish that are varied. It can be done by limiting where those businesses can be located. Zoning ordinances can also make certain uses a special exception. Generally uses are categorized as permitted, not permitted or special exception. Special exceptions mandate neighbor notification and a public meeting prior to approval and allows a board to add conditions to their operation. Conditions can be diverse and include things like hours of operation, installation of fences or other buffering devices, or specifics on appropriate signage, for example.
People often ask about the current regulations and how they are administered. Zoning ordinances exist for 6 of the 8 municipalities in the county (Oakland, Mountain Lake Park, Loch Lynn Heights, Accident, Friendsville and Grantsville) and in the Deep Creek watershed. Every zoning ordinance is the sole responsibility of a governing body. For example, each town zoning ordinance is the responsibility of the Mayor and Town Council of each town, while the Deep Creek Watershed Zoning Ordinance is the responsibility of the Garrett County Commissioners. The legislative body with authority over the ordinance is the only body with the authority to make changes to that ordinance. In each case where there is a zoning ordinance a zoning administrator, Planning Commission and a Zoning Appeals Board is appointed by the legislative body. Each has different responsibilities.
A zoning administrator accepts applications for zoning permits, reviews the application for compliance with the ordinance and refers the permit on to the Zoning Appeals Board should a hearing be required. This individual also takes the cases to the Planning Commission for their recommendation prior to the Zoning Appeals Board hearing. Garrett County towns are small staffed and often cannot hire a person to fill this role. Because of this the County administers the ordinances of all the towns as well as the Deep Creek Watershed Zoning Ordinance.
A planning commission exists as an advising body on land use matters in their jurisdiction. Their focus is ‘big picture’ and long term. One of their main jobs is to ensure the creation and regular updating of a Comprehensive Plan. This plan looks at issues regarding not only land use, but also transportation, housing, economic development, mineral resources, water resources, sensitive areas, and community facilities, like education facilities, fire/ems, law enforcement, health care, solid waste and libraries. When it comes to zoning ordinances, they may make recommendations to their legislative bodies for amendments to the ordinance or may comment on amendments proposed by either a citizen or the legislative body.
A Zoning Appeals Board is semi-judicial and makes decisions on specific zoning cases. When an application meets all the conditions specified by the ordinance, that permit is handled exclusively by the zoning administrator. Likewise, if it is not permitted, the request is denied and the application process ends at that point. If the application is for a special exception use, the zoning administrator schedules a hearing of the zoning appeals board, notifies contiguous (adjacent) property owners, advertises the hearing as specified in the ordinance, reviews the case with the planning commission, and then sends all comments to the zoning appeals board for their review at the hearing. In addition, some applications meet the land use requirements; however, do not meet the setback requirements. For example, a new residential house cannot be built too close to the property lines or to the road. If an applicant cannot meet those setback requirements due to lot size, shape or some other reason and can prove hardship, they can file for a variance from those requirements. A variance request is handled the same way as a special exception request.
One final topic to highlight involves the relationship between the Comprehensive Plan and the zoning ordinance. The Comprehensive Plan sets policy, while the zoning ordinance is one of many sets of regulation that allows for the enactment of that policy. The Comprehensive Plan takes about two years and many, many public meetings to gather input from citizens on issues of policy. The creation or update of ordinances follows that process and generally takes about half the time and approximately half the number of meetings. For an inane but easy to follow example: let’s say during the Comprehensive Plan process citizens made it abundantly clear that they are very concerned about the proliferation of thumb wrestling parks. The Planning Commission may then include in the Comprehensive Plan a policy that states “Garrett County does not support nor endorse thumb wrestling parks and will discourage the creation of such parks.” This is a good policy and supports what the citizens requested; however, it has no action associated with it. What does ‘will discourage’ mean? That’s where regulation steps in. As it is a land use policy, it will need to be handled through zoning. Zoning is not the only land use ordinance; however, it is the one most applicable to this type of policy. As part of the zoning ordinance update the legislative body may consider a regulation that makes thumb wrestling parks not permitted in any zoning district. Similarly they may create a regulation that makes that use permitted by right in some districts but by special exception in others. They may NOT create a regulation that makes that use permitted in all districts. That would be in direct conflict with the policy stated in the Comprehensive Plan. Also bear in mind, that since zoning is not countywide, this new regulation will only prohibit thumb wrestling parks in the zoned areas.
Hopefully this summary clarified some of the most frequently asked questions about zoning. If you have more, feel free to contact our office at 301-334-1920.