County, Rock Hall debate planning and zoning

Mayor of Rock Hall Dawn Jacobs presents information to the Kent County Commissioners July 2 on challenges facing the town. The county informed Rock Hall that, effective July 1, the town will be responsible for its planning and zoning, which Jacobs said puts a burden on the staff there.

CHESTERTOWN — Rock Hall Mayor Dawn Jacobs came before the Kent County Commissioners during a July 2 meeting to request the county take back operation of the town’s planning and zoning.

During a May 9 mayor and council meeting, Councilwoman Beth Andrews — who also serves as the liaison for the town’s planning and zoning board — said the town was informed via letter from the county that, effective July 1, Rock Hall would become responsible for operating its own planning and zoning.

Previously, planning and zoning matters were evaluated through the county office. Upon approval, applications would be passed on to Rock Hall’s planning and zoning board.

In the July 2 meeting, the commissioners opted to give the town a 30-day extension to find an outside organization that can take on planning and zoning or to hire someone to do the job. The commissioners did not agree to take back operations of planning and zoning.

Jacobs said the town is working with staffing shortages as they do not currently have a town manager. That position was vacated after town manager of 21 years Ron Fithian retired in April. Fithian also is serving as a commissioner, though he did not say anything during Jacobs’ presentation or the resulting discussion.

County Administrator Shelley Heller said the county also has staffing shortages after Director of Planning, Housing and Zoning Amy Mordock resigned earlier in the year.

“That’s really what led to this decision. There have been several suggestions that have been offered as a way — either temporarily or permanently — looking forward. It’s going to be a challenge for the county with turnover as well as what is happening in the Town of Rock Hall,” Heller said.

Tom Mason, president of the commissioners, said it was not the county’s intent to add extra burden to the town.

“We don’t want to do this, but it’s not a matter of we don’t want to do it. We’ve had some changes within (the staff),” Mason said. “We have problems too. And I do believe there’s other organizations — I think you were given names — that are very interested in working with you.”

Mason then asked if there was anyone in the audience who could speak on behalf of an organization that handles planning and zoning for towns. Later in the meeting Deborah Pfeil, a senior planner with KCI, was invited to speak about the work her company provides.

However, Jacobs said even with the county having a limited staff, they have more resources available to them than Rock Hall.

“It’s not a function of the resources out there, it’s a function of the resources we currently have to even deal with going forward. I mean, we don’t have a town manager. We have significant problems that we’re dealing with that have a lot to do with long-standing problems that haven’t been dealt with and now they must be dealt with,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said while she understands the difficulties facing the commissioners, there is no one currently employed by Rock Hall who has the training or understanding to handle complex issues that come with planning and zoning.

Mason said, however, many of the members of Rock Hall’s planning and zoning board — who attended the meeting as well as all four members of the Rock Hall council — seem to have experience dealing with these issues.

Jacobs said those people are volunteers, though, who are seeking guidance from professionals in the field.

Mason again suggested the town seek help from an outside organization.

Commissioner Bob Jacob said the county also is looking to an outside organization to help with its planning and zoning.

“But you’re doing it with a staff that understands the environment and activities that are required,” Mayor Jacobs said.

Heller said the county could assist the town as it transitions from the county operating planning and zoning to using an outside company.

“We’re not interested in throwing you to the wolves,” Mason said.

“Maybe we could help each other get out of the hole a little bit,” Jacob said. “I’m willing to entertain any conversation on how we can work together, but I don’t know if we’re doing you a favor by taking your permits in because we’re not getting any out.”

He said the county currently has a backlog of permits due to its limited staff.

The mayor said, however, having Rock Hall take on planning and zoning is “just one more thing” on an already “work-heavy” staff.

Additionally, Andrews said during the May 9 meeting the county also may have thought Rock Hall could add planning and zoning to the list of responsibilities a new town manager will take on.

However, the mayor said during the meeting with the commissioners that she does not plan on adding planning and zoning to a potential town manager’s job description.

Jacobs also said planning and zoning in Rock Hall is not an easy task due to its location on the Chesapeake Bay.

“Because of its location, this town is a very unique planning and zoning situation because we’re on the waterfront, we have very specific floodplain issues as well as critical area issues,” Jacobs said in the May 9 town meeting. “There’s reporting requirements associated with those unique aspects. It’s a big job.”

She said paying for a professional to work even three days a week could be challenging for the town. She also said the town also could incur a lot of unintended legal expenses if the job is done improperly.

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