A commission appointed by Gov. Harry Hughes to rewrite state condominium laws has voted to restrict local control over condominiums and leave regulaton in the hands of the state -- a position that is certain to spark a divisive debate on the issue during the next 10 weeks of the General Assembly.
Friday night's vote by the condominium commission was actively opposed by the governor and several local governements, including Montgomery County. As is true elsewhere in the area, particularly in the District, conversions in Montgomery County have led to a rental housing crisis and the government has passed numerous laws in attempt to deal with the problem.
Both Hughes and Montgomery County spent weeks lobbying the commission members to draw up legislation that would give local governments the ability to control condominium conversions in order to meet local conditions. However, in work sessions and public hearings over the last few weeks, most commission members indicdated a preference for uniform statewide laws.
This position was actiively supported by the state's powerful real estate lobby, which maintained that local laws are frequently too tenant-oriented and were difficult and expensive to conform to because they varied so much between jurisdictions.
Although the panel adopted final recommendations Friday night, State Sen. Jerome Connell (D-Anne Arundel), the commission chairman, said after the meeting that the issue was not over. "Both sides to some extent were unhappy," Connell said. "This is a very difficult, very emotional subject and it's certainly not over, as far as the legislature is concerned."
Nor, apparently, is the issue over for Hughes. According to an aide, the governor is unlikely to support the legislation proposed by his commission and may ask it to reconsider some of the recommendations. It is possible that Hughes will submit his own condominium law proposals to the legislature or support a bill being drafted by Montgomery County officails that will provide only general state laws on the matter and let local jurisdictions enact specific regulations.
"The governor feels as he always has that these things [condominium conversion laws] should be left to the counties . . . ," said John Griffin, a Hughes aide who had shuttled between the legislators on the commission during the last few days in an effort to work out a compromise.
Montgomery county officials say the recommended legislation adopted by the commission Friday night would be "disastrous" for Montgomery County, where in the last year 10 percent of the county's renters were told that their apartments were being converted.
The county has been legislatively active in trying to control conversions, but was recently told by the state's highest court that state law bars local regulation of the matter and therefore some of its condominium laws were illegal. As a result, local officials turned to the condominium commission.
In particular, Montgomery wanted to be able to pass local laws giving it the right to declare a condominium moratorium, set aside an unlimited number of units in converted projects that would remain apartments and buy a building proposed for conversion before it was sold to anyone else.
The commission agreed only to give local jurisdictions the right to set aside units for persons they felt were "disadvantaged." However, the commission limited the set-aside provision to only 20 percent.