Cecil County Commissioners: Zoning, Decision-making Feud Erupts Anew
The Cecil County Commissioners escalated a feud over property rights and their decision-making process Tuesday, with angry exchanges at a morning worksession followed by three commissioners voting in the evening to reject Planning Commission-recommended zoning changes on four properties because they are owned by Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5). Hodge recused himself from the actions.
It was a day of dueling “statements” by commissioners, accusations and challenges, and one Commissioner—Diana Broomell (R-4) — making assertions against Hodge that she later had to admit were wrong.
Three commissioners—James Mullin (R-1) Michael Dunn (R-3) and Broomell—voted to reject zoning revisions on four commercial properties in the Route 40 growth corridor. They did not cite zoning criteria but said they rejected the parcels because they are owned by Hodge.
The Planning Commission had recommended approval of the revisions as part of implementation of the new Comprehensive Plan adopted by the county a year ago. That process and comprehensive rezoning that follows occurs only every ten to twelve years.
Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) made motions to approve the Planning Commission’s recommendations on some of the four Hodge parcels but her motion died for lack of a second.
Hodge had consulted with the County Ethics commission months ago and said he would have no involvement with the review of his six properties with proposed rezonings and asked how to proceed in the overall rezoning process. The Ethics panel advised that there was no need to remove himself from the overall process.
(See previous Cecil Times report and Ethics Commission findings here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/03/cecil-county-commissioners-silent-stall-on-hodge-zoning-request-divides-panel/
During the worksession, Hodge read from a statement questioning the other Commissioners’ refusal to make a decision on two properties a week ago and their unwillingess then to explain their rationale. He said his concerns were focused on the decision-making process rather than the substance of the zoning decisions and said it reflected broader problems with the way the commissioners’ board is operating.
“We must deliberately and diligently and without prejudice make these decisions together as a body of five,” Hodge said. “How we make our decisions is just as important as the decision we make.”
“Clearly, my requests were singled out,” Hodge said. “I feel that I’ve been singled out to be made an example of.”
“As a county Commissioner, I am not required to, and I did not offer to give up, any rights given to all citizens by the U.S. Constitution, including private property rights,” he added. He gave fellow commissioners copies of the Ethics Commission letter.
(County Commissioners are considered to hold a part-time job with the county and are permitted to have outside employment or businesses.)
Broomell shot back that “I didn’t appreciate” an inference that there had been a “meeting before the meeting” and that some of the commissioners had agreed in advance how to handle the issue. “Please don’t accuse me of something until you ask me first,” she said.
Mullin said he felt the commissioners were in “an awkward situation” and he didn’t want to be responsible for “making a decision to increase the value of your real estate” with a rezoning. He said he had no “animosity” toward Hodge but “I was concerned about the perception of the public.”
The feud simmered just below the surface as the commissioners moved on to other business but re-surfaced when Broomell declared she wanted to read a “written statement” and claimed that Hodge had previously sought re-zoning of a mobile home park on Route 213 and it had been denied.
“That is absolutely false,” Hodge interrupted. “It’s not true.” He said he had “never requested any rezoning on any property ever, period” until the comprehensive review.
Broomell glared at him and declared, “Don’t be emotional.”
However, in an email to Cecil Times Tuesday night, Broomell admitted she was wrong in her assertions about Hodge’s mobile home property. “This was incorrect,” she wrote. “After checking with the Office of Planning and Zoning, the parcel which had previously been submitted for a rezoning request was the one prior to Robert’s and was related to Barry Montgomery’s zoning request.”
In fact, the mobile home park in question has been used for that purpose since at least 1972, before the current rural residential zoning was imposed on it, and it has been “grandfathered” to retain its current usage. Hodge purchased it about ten years ago and undertook a significant renovation and improvement of what had been a run-down property. He had sought to have the zoning revised to manufactured homes to reflect its actual usage.
In her email, Broomell also said that she agreed that Hodge has property rights “but he should have exercised those rights before he ran for public office in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety. It places the other commissioners in an awkward position to have to vote on another sitting commissioner’s request. It was not an easy decision but when it came down to it I couldn’t vote for it in good conscience.”
After the evening session, Hodge told Cecil Times that his were the only properties on which commissioners ignored Planning Commission and planning staff recommendations. “Its all political,” he said.
All five members of the Board of Commissioners are Republicans. But Mullin, Broomell and Dunn have become a regular voting bloc since the latter two members were sworn into office a few months ago.