A state legislative committee could make a decision as early as this week on a bill that would make it more difficult to undo binding agreements between developers and the Frederick Board of County Commissioners to build hundreds of new homes and businesses.
The bill, proposed by Del. Galen R. Clagett (D-Dist. 3A) of Frederick, had its first hearing on Feb. 14 before the 24-member House Environmental Matters Committee in Annapolis.
Clagett presented the bill to the panel, explaining that, if passed, the measure would prevent opponents from asking the five-member Frederick County Board of Appeals to overturn what are known as Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreements signed between the commissioners and a builder.
Clagett said Monday that there could be a decision from the committee as early as this week.
Currently, an opponent of developer agreements has the option to ask the appeals board to overturn the pact. If the board rules against them, they then have the option to take the case to Frederick County Circuit Court.
Clagett’s bill would prevent opponents from going before the appeals board, leaving no option but the courts.
The bill would apply to all counties in the state, with the exception of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Those two counties have already eliminated the board of appeals from the process.
“Developers can lose a lot of time, because they must go to the board of appeals first,” Clagett said. “The bottom line is there is time lost, and most of these end up getting appealed [to circuit court] anyway. What we’re trying to do is take it out of the hands of the board of appeals. I think the appeals process is a good idea; I just don’t think we need to do it twice.”
Clagett said eliminating the appeals board is good for real estate investors because it will expedite the building process.
Committee members asked Clagett few questions during the hearing and made no decisions.
Clagett’s bill has not been filed in the Senate.
If the bill receives a favorable report from the House committee, it would still need to go before the entire Maryland General Assembly for approval, then be signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). If enacted, it would take effect on Oct. 1.
A fiscal summary of the bill states that it will not affect state operations or finances. But the amount of time or money spent by a local government defending a Development Rights and Responsibilities Agreement may be impacted by the legislation, according to the legislative note.
Friends of Frederick County, a nonprofit group that fights urban sprawl and promotes good government, is hoping the committee does not support the bill.
“We respectively request that you deny HB256 on the grounds that it removes from the citizens an important democratic right to appeal decisions that will adversely affect the health safety and welfare of the citizens and environment of Frederick County,” Janice Wiles, executive director of the Friends of Frederick County, told committee members.
Wiles called Clagett’s bill “outrageous,” saying the appeals board is a safeguard against precipitous and ill-considered county actions.
The Friends of Frederick County has opposed a majority of the land development decisions made since the current five-member board of commissioners took office in 2010, filing several lawsuits challenging the legality of those decisions.
“It gives citizens a venue for more thoughtful review of development proposals,” she said.
The group appeared before the appeals board in December challenging an agreement between commissioners and the developers of the Landsdale Planned Unit Development in Monrovia. The developers want to build 1,100 homes in south county.
The board, appointed by the county commissioners, unanimously denied the group’s appeal. The group has since filed a lawsuit in county circuit court.
The fee to ask the appeals board for an administrative review is $330. The board hears and decides appeals that claim a decision made by the commissioners or a county official in the enforcement of zoning law is erroneous. The board also decides to authorize “special exceptions” to the zoning ordinance.
Developers Rights and Responsibilities Agreements date back to 1995, when the legislature approved a law that once a county government signs such a pact with a developer, it cannot be overturned by a newly-elected body. The agreements, depending on how they are written, can remain in place for along as 25 years.
The agreement gives the developer the right to build homes and businesses that cannot be undone but also stipulates the infrastructure improvements — schools, roads, water and sewer service — the builder must make to accommodate the new growth.
Currently, the law allows opponents of the agreement to take their case to the appeals board for an administrative review and decision, as well as a circuit court judge.
As of Jan. 31, the Frederick County commissioners have entered into seven agreements with developers. Combined, the agreements could mean 8,890 new homes could be built in the county.
Clagett, president of Clagett Enterprises, a commercial real estate company in Frederick, said he is not involved in any of the agreements currently before commissioners. He said his company works primarily with commercial properties.