The Baltimore County Council extended its confirmation authority Thursday to members of the county’s powerful planning board, which makes recommendations on zoning, water and sewer allowances, and land use throughout the 600- square-mile area.

Council members also voted to place term limits on commission members, allowing them to serve no more than three terms and making that retroactive.

Currently, three members of the board have been there longer. Wayne McGinnis, a landowner in the northern part of the county, is in his eighth term; Nancy Hafford, head of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, is in her fifth; and Howard Perlow, a real estate professional, is in his fourth.

Planning Board members’ roles are advisory, but more than half the time, their recommendations prevail in zoning matters — even when it differs from the professional planning staff’s recommendations.

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The term limits were a surprise amendment from the administration of Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., with the chair only learning of it this morning and others saying they had gotten a few days’ heads-up.

The administration had requested a limit of three terms, but to begin that at each individual’s next term. That meant some could be on the board for several decades.

The council objected to that. Councilman Todd Crandell offered an amendment to the Olszewski measure to make the term limits retroactive, and it passed. That means those who have served longer than three terms will be out when their terms expire, which was not the administration’s intention.

David Marks is a member of the Baltimore County Council representing the 5th District. (Courtesy of David Marks)

Councilman David Marks was the main sponsor of the legislation to expand confirmation powers. Marks noted that most other boards require council approval, and that extra step of vetting is even more important for the planning commission because they get paid.

As chair, Hafford makes $20,000 a year; the others make $10,000. The 15-member board is divided between representatives from Olszewski and the council, with each appointing half. But while council members have mostly chosen members from the community, Marks said, the county executive’s members overly represent the development community.

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“Right now, it’s skewed to developers, and they have very sizable powers,” Marks said.

The board’s website does not give biographies of the members, but an internet search reveals several Olszewski picks representing developer interests. In addition to Hafford and Perlow, the county executive has appointed real estate professionals Shafiyq Hilton and Emily Brophy; estate planning lawyer Steven Heinl; and Katie Pinheiro, executive director at the Greater Towson Committee.

Unlike other county boards and the County Council itself, the planning board meetings are streamed on Webex only. Its last meeting, on Friday, May 17, lasted 11 minutes.

Olszewski spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said that the administration “has appointed a geographically and demographically diverse group of engaged community members to the Planning Board,” and that includes an official from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development official and another from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Asked about the Webex-only meetings, she said those are held at the chair’s discretion.

Hafford did not return an email sent to her office.

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Longtime Planning Board observers have lamented the lack of transparency, including the web-only meetings and opaque business practices.

For example, any county resident can introduce a zoning issue, even if they don’t own the property. But residents have to pay to do so, and often must hire an attorney. Planning Board members and council members can do it for free, either on behalf of constituents or, less commonly, on behalf of themselves. Some planning board members have requested rezoning on property in districts where they do not live and on property they do not own, according to Councilman Wade Kach.

“I think that’s just not right,” Kach said.

Eric Rockel, a retired supervisor from the county real estate office, agrees — and testified at an earlier work session in favor of Marks’ bill.

“I’m not accusing the planning board members of doing anything illegal, but they haven’t carried out best practices when they need to recuse themselves,” he said.

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When he wrote a five-page letter to the board about issues in the county master plan, Rockel said, he did not even receive an email recognizing that board members had gotten it.

Similarly, residents of Boring, in northern Baltimore County, wrote more than a dozen emails to the planning commission begging them not to upzone their beloved fire station to light manufacturing to allow a construction operation there. The county planning staff agreed with residents, but the board voted 7-6 to upzone the station, with little discussion about the letters.

The board reasoned that the buyer would be a good neighbor because he lived in the community, even though the letters explained he has been in a bitter dispute with neighbors over the zoning for almost a decade.

“It was like they didn’t even read our letters,” said Boring resident Sam Blum.

Palmisano said the county executive had not heard complaints that the board was not responsive to resident complaints.

“Individual members of the public may disagree with recommendations made by the Planning Board on any particular issue,” she said. “The County continues to encourage members of the public to attend and participate in Planning Board meetings.”