The St. Mary's County Board Commissioners agreed Tuesday to return a 435-page draft of new zoning regulations, the Unified Land Development Code, to the San Francisco consultant who wrote it.
"It did not meet our expectations," Commissioners President Julie B. Randall (D-At Large) said. "We'd like a remedy and a time line."
Three weeks ago, consultant Michael Dyett submitted a draft of the proposed code for St. Mary's, a document that combines specific building, environmental, engineering and other zoning regulations into one volume. The code was based on the county's new comprehensive plan for development, a land use guide that the county adopted in April.
This week the commissioners concluded that the draft failed to meet one of their major goals: coming up with a "user friendly" consolidation of all the county's separate zoning and building regulations.
"To me," said County Commissioners Vice President Joseph F. Anderson (D-Drayden), "one of the most telling statements came in the memo that came with this code: 'Finally, we realize that more can be done to make the Code more graphically accessible and to streamline regulations.'
"Why hasn't that been done at this point?" Anderson asked Tuesday.
In an earlier interview, Anderson was more explicit about his expectations: "I agree that a document like this is inherently complex, but it doesn't mean it can't be user friendly. Ordinances have been and are being developed so that they're accessible.
"Just because zoning ordinances have always been very, very intricate and involved, and took a team of lawyers to decipher them, doesn't mean that's how it has to be," he said.
When the commissioners received the document, bound in a red folder, most of them professed shock that it was more than an inch thick. And even before a review of the document's contents--a complex and layered body of regulations that will control the shape and extent of growth in the county in the coming years--most of the commissioners had seemed to reject it.
The consultant working on the draft code seemed sympathetic this week. "It's premature to review this as a public review draft. It's an administrative draft meant for staff review," said Michael Dyett, a veteran planner who is also writing unified codes for Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Oakland and Houston.
Dyett compared the administrative draft to the frame of a new home, "certainly not as elegant" as a house that's been painted and furnished. The purpose of an administrative draft is to give the county planning officials and the commissioners a chance to review the substance of the code, and determine whether it meets the test of the comprehensive plan, an equally voluminous document.
"We're committed to making this document as streamlined as possible," said Dyett, who learned of the commissioners' decision and criticism from a reporter.
"But we want to make sure that the policies we're translating [from the comprehensive plan] into regulations, that we're getting that right," Dyett said.
When that's done, the document--streamlined, the language tightened and with graphics--could be done in a draft that's presented for a public review, Dyett said.
Dyett, a partner in an urban planning firm in San Francisco, said the standard schedule to develop such a unified code is a year or more. But the St. Mary's commissioners gave him six months--"an aggressive schedule," he said.
Dyett was first hired by the previous board of county commissioners to review a previous comprehensive plan, and draft a code. But the plan was revised under the direction of the current commissioners, who took office last December. Those revisions required a new look because they represented significant policy changes, Dyett said.
Dyett was scheduled to review the draft of the unified code next Monday with the commissioners and members of the Planning and Zoning Commission. With Tuesday's decision to send the code back to Dyett for rewriting, the Monday meeting is in question.
Local and regional planners, along with national industry experts, say that St. Mary's County has its work cut out in the unified code. Although many cities and counties around the country have been using unified codes since the mid-1980s, the experience of consolidating different and sometimes conflicting books of zoning regulations is not pain-free.
"I think you can simplify. I think that can be done. The constraints of this is when you start going through the various rules, nobody is willing to get rid of anything. It is complicated," said Stuart Meck, a senior planning researcher for the American Planning Association, a national industry group in Chicago.
Unified codes are also thick: Those in Prince George's and Fairfax counties are more than 1,000 pages each.
In an earlier interview, Jon Grimm, director of St. Mary's County's Department of Planning and Zoning, said the unified code, "because of its inherent nature, would never be a simple document for the one-time or two-time user," such as a homeowner.
"But what we've attempted to do is to make it an administratively simpler document. It's more coherent," Grimm said. For developers or commercial builders and other professionals, the unified code will provide one-stop shopping for regulations on zoning, planners said.
Some planners and builders said that indeed, one book of regulations is better than five, but they wondered whether the St. Mary's commissioners are trying to do an impossible task.
"Even a commercial home builder doesn't understand all the codes, and he has to have someone with a professional license to stamp and seal his drawings in order to get it through the zoning process," said Pat Mudd, a partner with D.H. Steffens, an engineering survey and planning firm in La Plata, who is reviewing St. Mary's Unified Code.
"I don't like to say that a lay person wouldn't be able to use it or understand it, because you'd like that to be the case," Mudd said. "I agree it's complex. My opinion is it's necessary to be complex."