By: Chase Cook, Capital Gazette reporter
Controversy over an Annapolis law has raised concerns that the city has been approving new developments without following its own code, an issue that has officials scrambling to find out how the law was created and how they might make changes.
Annapolis adequate public facilities laws require the city to review certain services before approving projects. These services include water and road use, as well as police and fire response times and staffing levels.
The law is a yardstick city officials use to determine whether Annapolis is growing too fast. A project that puts too much strain on a city service could affect all residents who receive that service.
Part of the law requires the city to have 3.2 police officers per 1,000 people. That standard, established in 2007, is higher than the national average of 1.7 officers per 1,000 people for similar-sized cities given by FBI data.
Annapolis has about 39,000 people, according to the 2014 U.S. Census population estimate. So the adequate public facilities law requires the city to have 125 officers.
The city has budgeted 114 sworn officers in its police department. As the law provides for no exceptions, any development approved while these staffing levels were in effect apparently didn’t meet the city’s adequate public facilities requirements.
So, at first glance, the city is not in compliance with the law and shouldn’t be approving developments.
But research by the city law office indicates the code is written so loosely it could encompass any official with police powers, which would include fire marshals and the public works director.
That brings the number up to 123, much closer to compliance, city officials said.
Using the 2014 population estimates, the city is still short two officers, but the code doesn’t specify which population estimates should be used. Utilizing the official 2010 U.S. Census numbers puts the city’s requirement at 124.
Given the undefined terms, and the city’s own interpretation of the law, developments that meet all other requirements would still be approved, City Attorney Mike Leahy said.
“If the standard is not being met as a matter of law, the law office will enforce the law,” Leahy said. “Having said that, there is a considerable controversy about how this ratio is arrived at. My first step is going to be to get the (City) Council to clarify that.”
Leahy said the law could be clarified by specifically defining police department officers, clearing up any confusion about how many officers the city needs.
Officials said that fire marshal officers and the public works director don’t respond to police calls; the city’s police force protects new developments.
Police Chief Michael Pristoop said his department has enough officers to protect the city. Despite a recent uptick in violence, crime has been trending downward, he said. Still, he said wouldn’t turn down new officers if the city authorized them.
Input from the police department is part of the development process, Pristoop said, with decisions based on the agency’s ability to protect the city and the new development.
“We have always been able to provide fast and effective service,” he said.
A recent uptick in violence in the city has had residents, especially those in Eastport, calling on the City Council to take action.
Telling those people the fire marshals and public works director are being counted toward the city’s adequate public facilities ratio isn’t going to cut it, said Alderman Ross Arnett, D-Ward 8.
“They aren’t out enforcing in the neighborhoods,” he said. “It is just sleight of hand and ignoring the problem.”
“My constituents are frightened and angry and frustrated.”