Cumberland Times-News

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March 11, 2014

Garrett County planners hold off on special exemption request

OAKLAND — The Garrett County Planning Commission voted unanimously last week to table a discussion regarding a text amendment to the Deep Creek Watershed Zoning ordinance to include broader use of special exceptions within the watershed for recreational uses.

The discussion was tabled until a date to review the county’s comprehensive plan update is determined and until action is taken in regard to an ethics complaint that was recently filed against County Commission Chairman Robert Gatto, according to Deborah Carpenter, assistant director of the Office of Planning and Land Management.

During a Feb. 18 meeting, the county commissioners voted to send the matter of text amendments of the zoning ordinance back to the planning commission. Gatto and Commissioner Gregan Crawford voted in favor of the motion and Commissioner Jim Raley voted against it.

 “Deep Creek Lake is a recreational area and given its nature is subject to competing demands,” reads a position statement made by Crawford and Gatto. “The public has expressed concern that there has not been sufficient public discussion and consideration of issues relating to recreational uses and the board is simply responding to that concern and are asking the planning commission for their input, nothing more.”

Also during that meeting, with Gatto recusing himself, Crawford made a motion to approve William Meagher’s request to add a new category of use for boat rentals including boat rides and/or boat tours as a separate service business and not offering any other services associated with a marina. Crawford’s motion died for lack of a second and therefore ended the pursuit and consideration of Meagher’s request for amendments to the zoning ordinance.

During the recent planning commission meeting, Carpenter stated, “In the wake of the public dissension over the Meagher issue, does the planning commission think that making more recreational uses special exceptions will allow for more public input and discussion? The commissioners are not asking for an action, but a discussion.”

Carpenter noted that if a public discussion needs to be held in regard to special exceptions that those needs would be better served with a review of of processes rather than a comprehensive review of recreational uses within the ordinance. The ordinance, which was updated in 2010, is regularly updated after each comprehensive plan update, according to Carpenter.

In a letter dated March 3 to the planning commission, Bob Hoffman, president of the Property Owners Association of Deep Creek Lake, noted the ordinance already allows numerous recreational activities as a special exception on the lake and within the watershed. Hoffman voiced concerns about the recommendation or application of a text amendment to allow boat rental activity as a separate service business by special exception. The POA noted that it would strongly oppose a text amendment to the zoning ordinance because it would undermine the integrity of the ordinance, would denigrate the public health and safety, and create the potential for a proliferation of boat rental activity and its unintended consequences.

There are at least 35 parcels in the Town Center Zoning District that could be eligible for special exceptions and such a use wouldn’t be practicable on all 35 or more parcels and market conditions will dictate whether new businesses will occur, according to Hoffman.

“However, we cannot predict the future and the potential for a proliferation of this type of activity on the lake is very real,” writes Hoffman.  

The POA asked that the planning commission table the discussion until the ethics complaint against Gatto is decided. Carol Jacobs, president of Aquatic Center Inc. in McHenry, has filed a complaint with the Garrett County Ethics Commission regarding a potential conflict of interest involving Gatto.

During the Feb. 18 commission meeting Gatto recused himself from a vote regarding Meagher’s request for a mini-marina. Gatto also recused himself from a public hearing held in September based on the fact that his company, Gatto Electric, completed electrical work for Meagher. However, Gatto didn’t recuse himself from a vote made during the February commission meeting regarding special exceptions.

“I would challenge the legitimacy of the commissioners’ vote to refer this back to the planning commission to determine the feasibility of a special exception on the grounds that Gatto was still conflicted and should not have participated,” Jacobs said in her complaint.

Hoffman noted in his letter to the planning commission that if the ethics commission decides Gatto was in the wrong it would likely result in invalidating his second to the motion as well as his vote in favor of the motion.

“If that were the result then the motion would not have carried and this matter would not be before you,” writes Hoffman.

Contact Elaine Blaisdell at eblaisdell@times-news.com.

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