Our Say: Ban on anonymous zoning complaints a terrible idea

The Capital, 06/17/09

Zoning sounds like a dull and arcane issue only until you've had a county inspector tell you that you were going to have to change something on your property - or that you were going to be fined. People who have had this happen to them always have strong opinions about the county Department of Inspections and Permits.

There was little surprise last summer when more than 250 came to a town-hall meeting in north county to vent about arbitrary, arrogant or incomprehensible zoning decisions on homes and businesses. Nor is it startling that a group objecting to the way county zoning laws are enforced - PROPO, or Protecting Rights Of Property Owners - claims nearly 2,000 members.

We've run enough stories about oddball zoning rulings to have our own qualms about how the county office operates. But we don't think any good purpose will be served by stripping inspectors of a basic tool used by their colleagues around the state, and by virtually every other enforcement agency: the ability to follow up anonymous complaints.

A bill to do just that - sponsored by departing Councilman Ed Reilly of Crofton - went before the County Council on Monday, drawing a crowd of nearly 200. There was no vote, as Reilly, who has now stepped down to fill a vacant state Senate seat, asked that the council postpone any decision until two absent members get back from summer excursions. The matter is scheduled to come up again on July 6.

Reilly's bill would require anyone who reports a zoning violation to give a full name and address. This might take care of any problems the inspections office has with its workload; the director reports that, in the last 100 complaints, only 18 complainants agreed to give their names. According to a survey by County Executive John R. Leopold's staff, 19 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions use anonymous complaints.

Del. Don Dwyer of Glen Burnie, who has taken a leading role in PROPO, is trying to elevate this into a constitutional issue. We don't buy it. We don't see why this is different from any police agency taking anonymous tips about illegal activity. The tips - like the complaints that come to the county zoning inspectors - are not evidence that can be used in a trial or any other official proceeding. They are just a heads-up for enforcement officials, who then check to see whether the information is accurate.

We can see why people who have repeatedly had complaints filed against them might be curious to find out which neighbors originated them. Some PROPO members even allege - without evidence - that inspectors fabricate anonymous complaints to harass certain people.

But, in practice, banning anonymous complaints would cripple zoning enforcement and reward the local bully whose neighbors are afraid to challenge him directly.

Whatever problems there may be with zoning enforcement in this county, use of anonymous complaints is not one of them. Reilly's bill should be rejected.

(Revised June 2009)