Cecil County Commissioners: Silent Stall on Hodge Zoning Request Divides Panel
Several Cecil County Commissioners refused to act Wednesday on two rezoning requests by fellow Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5), who had recused himself from voting on his properties in accordance with an opinion he requested from the county Ethics Commission.
Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) moved to reject the proposals, while Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) moved to approve them. Each motion died for lack of a second when Commissioners’ President James Mullin (R-1) and Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3) refused to vote on either motion.
The standoff produced a heated hallway discussion among the four commissioners during a brief recess, according to several sources who were present at the proceeding. Afterwards, the commissioners then put off action on four other Hodge-owned properties that were on the agenda.
(Cecil Times was not present in the meeting room but has interviewed multiple sources, reviewed county Planning Commission minutes, and viewed the Ethics Commission letter.)
The Commissioners are reviewing numerous requests from property owners all over the county as part of the comprehensive rezoning of the county in tandem with the new comprehensive plan adopted by the county a year ago. Rezoning requests have been reviewed by the county planning department and the Planning Commission, with final decisions to be made by the County Commissioners.
At Wednesday’s meeting, applications regarding a mobile home park on Route 213 near Chesapeake City and the farm on which Hodge lives in North East were on the agenda. Both proposals had been approved by the Planning Commission and no local residents voiced objections at the commission’s hearings, according to minutes of the Planning Commission’s February meetings.
The mobile home park, Brantwood Court, is currently zoned Rural Residential but the property is ‘grandfathered’ since it was in use as a mobile home park long before the zoning was applied. Hodge sought to have the land zoned MH (manufactured home) to reflect the actual usage of the property since at least 1972.
The property is well known in southern Cecil County. For many years, it was a run-down eyesore and the subject of community complaints. Hodge said he acquired the property about ten years ago and upgraded utilities, lots and the housing units on the site. The improvements are evident to passersby on busy Route 213.
Moore’s motion to approve the request was greeted with silence from other commissioners. Mullin said he would decline to provide a second to the motion because the property is in his district. Then Broomell moved to disapprove the request and her motion died for lack of a second. She did not explain her reasons for making her motion. With no action by the commissioners on the request for a change, the zoning plan’s provision for an RR designation would remain in effect.
Hodge told Cecil Times that he had requested an advisory opinion from the county Ethics Commission in January, telling the panel he wanted to request zoning changes on six properties he or his businesses own and that he would recuse himself from any votes on his own properties. He asked the Commission for advice on how to proceed and if he should stand down from any role in the process, even on properties he does not own.
In a February 7 letter, the Commission wrote that it agreed that Hodge must not vote on his own properties but said he was not barred from participating in the Commissioners’ review of other rezoning requests by citizens. To remove him from the process on properties he does not own, the panel said “could quite foreseeably have a chilling effect on the ability of the Board of County Commissioners to conduct business on this particular matter, as any Commissioner that owns real property in Cecil County would be subject to similar constraints.” The ethics panel said that “such a broad reading goes beyond the spirit and intent’ of the law.
Hodge told Cecil Times he was “puzzled and troubled” by the actions, and silence, of three of his fellow commissioners. He said none of them had spoken to him before the meeting about any possible concerns.
The agenda had been established well in advance and the list of properties seeking rezoning has been on file for over a month.
Hodge said that the Commissioners should have stated, in public, the reasons for their actions. “But any casual observer could not help but notice that the actions of three of the Commissioners appeared to have been decided upon, and coordinated prior to our meeting, but not in any work-session or other official meeting at which I or Commissioner Moore were in attendance,” Hodge said.
“This appears to be part of a disturbing pattern,” he said, adding that he would have more to say on the subject at the next meeting of the commissioners.
Moore said she was concerned when any property owner’s rights to “due process” were violated. “I think we have an obligation to be fair and just to every citizen,” she said.
The trio of Mullin, Dunn and Broomell have increasingly become a voting bloc on the five-member board of Commissioners, often at odds with Hodge and Moore on a variety of issues. Mullin and Dunn were members of a Republican “fiscal conservative team slate” organized by state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36) and Del. Michael D. Smigiel (R-36) for last year’s elections.
Dunn recently resigned as a legislative aide to Smigiel. Broomell also worked for Smigiel in the past but sought to distance herself from him in the past few years.