Somerset County seeks to clarify code to prevent unintended residential uses in certain districts

Hunting cabins, campers finding their way to be used as dwellings

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PRINCESS ANNE — Rural zones in Somerset County are seeing some unintended residential uses which the County Commissioners want to curb through a tightening of the zoning code.

They are asking the planning commission to meet and recommend changes which will require public hearings before becoming law.

According to Mary Phillips, assistant planning office director and zoning administrator, out-of-county property owners in particular are pushing the intended boundaries when it comes to using hunting and fishing cabins in Agriculture Residential (AR), Conservation (CO) and Maritime-Residential-Commercial (MRC) districts.

The code has few restrictions other than “used as a temporary residence and not connected to public utilities,” and, “No Cabin shall be considered a dwelling.”

There are no provisions for acreage, or where a cabin can be located. Ms. Phillips said one property owner wanted to place a hunting cabin on a vacant one-acre lot “right smack dab in the middle” of a street where there are 13 highly-assessed homes. Although there was no prohibition in the ordinance, “We dissuaded him from doing it,” she said.

She also receives applications for hunting cabins that are pole buildings — typically considered for ag purposes — but there is no agricultural activity intended. “This is not what we would like, we want something small,” she said.

When a hunting/fishing cabin is sited, they cannot be connected to “public utilities.” Ms. Phillips said property owners challenge denials when they want a permit for a private well and septic which she said was not the intent of the code.

Also denied are requests to establish electric service on vacant properties — usually so the owner can bring an RV or camp there. Ms. Phillips told the commissioners when electric service is established it invites non-permitted or even year-round activity.

Another section of the code dealing with camps and campgrounds in specific zones addresses public or commercial/institutional uses but is silent on camping on private property for the sole use of the owner.

The planning office hears about these usually after the fact when an electrician wants a permit for line to be run from a pole to the site, or when there is a request for a road culvert over a ditch to gain access.

County Commissioner Vice President Charles Laird said all of these situations should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, with acreage one of the factors, perhaps through the special exception process heard by the Board of Zoning Appeals. Ms. Phillips said 5 acres is now the minimum for a camper in the temporary use section of the ordinance, which the planning commission can consider expanding for other uses.

“If you ride around the county there are RVs everywhere,” said Commissioner Randy Laird. He said setbacks are also necessary because even with 5 acres campers could wind up next to a neighboring property owner.

The planning commission will hold a work session to discuss amendments to the code, adopted in August 2019, and advertise in the County Times to schedule a public hearing with its recommended changes. After that the draft changes will go to the County Commissioners for a second public hearing.

“There are issues we need to iron out,” Charles Laird said. “I’m sure we’ll be able to sit down and come up with something that’s suitable.”