Alternative Compliance Process

Through the Alternative Compliance process, an applicant may request that the Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) grant relief from strict compliance with specific land development regulations. DPZ requires mitigation and remediation for relief from specific site design regulations.

Alternative Compliance applications to the Subdivision and Land Development Regulations or to Forest Conservation Regulations are submitted electronically through the ProjectDox system. 

Engineering Design Manual Waivers are processed by paper application to the Development Engineering Division. Please see the below application for submission information. 

Alternative compliance site plan

This webpage is provided as a service to the public to increase transparency and make information about the county development review process more accessible.

The FAQs answer common questions about the alternative compliance process, while the tabs immediately below provide easy access to the following information:

  • A mapping application that allows the public to search for alternative compliance decisions
  • An interactive reporting tool that allows the user to customize and visualize the data from nine years of alternative compliance decisions
  • Case studies that provide insight into the alternative compliance decision-making process


Map App

Accessing Alternative Compliance Information Through a Map Application

How to use this App


Alternative Compliance Activity

Case Studies

Frequently Asked Questions


What is an alternative compliance?


The Howard County Subdivision and Land Development Regulations define alternative compliance and allow the Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ) to grant someone relief from strictly complying with specific land development regulations. Alternative compliance generally falls into three categories, based on the nature of a request:

  • Process/sequence - the order or requirements for submitting plans.
  • Design concept - plans that result in disturbing environmental features or trigger modifications to lot and road design, required public road lot frontage, or improvements such as sidewalks, curb and gutter, and street trees.
  • Time extension - deferring due dates for submissions, permits, actions, and fees.

Is an alternative compliance the same thing as a waiver?


The term waiver is still in the Howard County Subdivision and Land Development Regulations, as defined in Sec. 16.104. Regulatory or government agencies most often use the term to refer to a process that exempts an applicant from certain regulations. In practice, Howard County began using the term alternative compliance in 2015 because DPZ requires mitigation and remediation as part of granting relief from certain design criteria; not exempting them. The hope was to amend the term during the rewrite of the land development regulations, which is now scheduled to occur after the general plan has been updated.


Why do land development regulations need to have some flexibility?


Regulations can never anticipate all possible situations. A site may be unusually configured or environmental features, such as steep slopes or a stream may lie directly in the path of a needed entrance road and no other reasonable options exist to access the property. To accommodate such unusual circumstances, all development regulations contain a certain degree of flexibility and allow a rule to be handled in a different way to accommodate reasonable use of someone’s property. Such administrative adjustments allow for flexibility and an alternative approach to site design, while maintaining the intent of the regulation as much as possible.


Do other jurisdictions include alternative compliance and necessary disturbance provisions in their regulations?


Yes, jurisdictions across the country, including our neighboring counties, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, and Harford all provide flexibility to address development regulations. Some decisions may be made administratively while others require board, commission, or hearing examiner approval.


What are some examples of required alternative compliance mitigation?

  • To accommodate a road crossing or utility, disturbance to a stream and its buffer should be the minimum necessary. In addition, the area that is disturbed must be returned to its original natural condition to the greatest extent possible. Ways to minimize disturbance could include using a bottomless arch culvert to cross the stream, which from an environmental perspective is a better solution, a bridge, constructing retaining walls to minimize grading and then replanting the disturbed area with native vegetation at the same density that existed previously.
  • When a native specimen tree must be removed it has to be replaced by at least two native trees with a diameter of at least three inches.
  • When preserving specimen trees, during construction they must protected with a fence around their critical root zone.

How is required mitigation action recorded and enforced?

  • The approved request for alternative compliance is assigned a file number and the request, section of the applicable regulation, action, conditions of approval, and action date must be shown on all related plats, site development plans, and building permits.
  • An alternative compliance approval remains valid for one year, or as long as plans are being actively processed in accordance with the development regulations.
  • DPZ verifies that all plans and building permits comply with the approvals.

What actions can DPZ take on an alternative compliance request?


DPZ can approve the request with or without conditions, deny it, the request can be withdrawn by the petitioner, or DPZ can defer action to a later stage in the development review process. A deferral may also indicate that more information is needed before a decision can be made.


Can the alternative compliance decisions be appealed


Yes, a decision by DPZ may be appealed to the Howard County Hearing Authority within 30 days of the date of its issuance. Information about the appeal process may be obtained at the DPZ Public Service Desk.


How can I find alternative compliance requests that are of interest to me?


When new requests for alternative compliance are received at DPZ, they are processed and posted to the Alternative Compliance Map App, usually within one day. The map app will provide the project location, date submitted, DPZ planner and engineer handling the request and the section of the code related to the request.

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