Calvert commissioners Steve Weems, Pat Nutter and Evan Slaughenhoupt. Signatures of Weems and Nutter were not on letters to Calvert Planning Commission officers notifying them of their suspension.
Prince Frederick, MD – After a majority of the Calvert County Commissioners voted in closed session earlier this month to suspend the chairman and vice chairman of the local planning commission, replacements—called alternates—are to be appointed. The commissioners will decide on the appointments during their weekly meeting Tuesday, Nov. 15. Four individuals are on the list of alternate candidates. They include former planning commission member Grace Mary Brady, Solomons businessman J. Matt Gambrill, realtor Christopher Moore and Steven Jones. At the start of its Nov. 16 meeting, the Calvert County Planning Commission is scheduled to designate two members as chair pro tempore and vice chair tempore.
The unusual actions follow the announcement made public Friday, Nov. 4 that the commissioners voted 3-to-2 to indefinitely suspend Chairman Maurice Lusby and Vice Chairman Mike Phipps. The panel’s two officers have 32 and 22 years of board service, respectively.
In a letter to the planning commission members dated Nov. 3, Department of Community Planning and Building Director J. Mark Willis stated the county commissioners took action to have a statement of charges prepared for the removal of Lusby and Phipps for “failure to follow conditions placed upon the expenditure of public funds set forth in a letter dated Sept. 16, 2016; failure to follow the Maryland Open Meetings Act; and denial of due process for allowing Zoning Text Amendment Case 16-04 to be stopped from further processing in accordance with the Calvert County Zoning Ordinance.” Willis further stated “a former planning commission member” provided information “that closed sessions may have been conducted to obtain legal advice regarding zoning matters. That would be a further violation of the Open Meetings Act, if found to be true, that has not been considered by the county commissioners.”
Willis also stated in his letter to the planning commission members that the removal of Lusby and Phipps “was commuted to suspension pending receipt of any response from the [Maryland] Attorney General to a letter being sent by the county commissioners that confirms the county commissioners’ authority to impose certain funding conditions authorized by Land Use Article.”
The text amendment at the center of the controversy is in regards to permitting drive up facilities in rural commercial zones. The county commissioners are scheduled to conduct a work session on Text Amendment Case 16-06, which would allow eating establishments within retail commercial buildings to have a drive-up facility where retail commercial buildings with drive up facilities are currently permitted. The item is also scheduled to be on the planning commission’s agenda the following evening.
Letters to Lusby and Phipps, both dated Nov. 1, were signed by three of the five county commissioners—Commissioners’ President Evan K. Slaughenhoupt Jr. (R-Dist. 3), Commissioners’ Vice President Tom Hejl (R-At large) and Commissioner Mike Hart (R-Dist. 3).
In a four-page letter to Maryland Att. General Brian E. Frosh, County Attorney John Norris noted that on June 10 the planning commission’s counsel, John A. Yacovelle, advised the Department of Community Planning and Building that the panel was giving formal notice that it was cancelling its portion of a joint public hearing “regarding the Prince Frederick Text Amendments.” Norris stated in the letter that county government staff learned the vote to cancel was taken by email. In an email to Department of Community Planning and Building Deputy Director Mary Beth Cook, Yacovelle stated, “apparently somebody up the chain of command proceeded to change certain significant provisions which were no long consistent with the instructions of the PC [planning commission]. The PC hereby rejects the changes.”
The planning commission subsequently attended the hearing, which received testimony both in support and opposition for the text amendments regarding the Prince Frederick Town Center. The county commissioners met in open session earlier on June 14 and adopted a resolution on a policy regarding the processing of amendments to the county zoning ordinance. The resolution passed 3-to-1-to-1, with Commissioner Steve Weems [R – At large] opposed and Commissioner Pat Nutter [R – District 2] abstaining. The commissioners later approved changes to the town center ordinance and subsequently rescinded their June 14 resolution.
When contacted Friday, Nov. 4 regarding his suspension, Lusby declined to comment. Phipps told TheBayNet.com that he was “disappointed but not really surprised.” He added that he believed a state panel with oversight of the Open Meetings Act, and not the Maryland Attorney General would likely be charged with rendering an opinion on the controversy.
Phipps also lamented that the controversy has begun brewing in the aftermath of the death of Yacovelle—the attorney at the center of the storm. Yacovelle, who had served as the planning commission’s counsel for over a decade, died last month after a brief illness.
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