Plans to change Baltimore County's development approval process would help community groups fight controversial developments more easily than they can now.
The administration of County Executive Roger B. Hayden has proposed doing away with the current County Review Group, a two-member board that reviews development proposals based solely on county technical standards. In its place, an administrative law judge would be appointed with the power to take into account more subjective factors.
If the Hayden administration proposal survives a summer of planning board and County Council review and becomes law, it might ultimately force developers and communities to work more closely before projects are officially submitted to the county, thereby preventing at least some disputes.
The conceptual proposal now being studied would help developers, too, by consolidating the bureaucratic procedures they now must endure to get approval for projects.
There are two big attractions for community groups.
The current County Review Group, composed of one official each from the county's planning and public works departments, would be eliminated. The administrative law judge appointed in its place would be either the county zoning commissioner or a deputy commissioner, and would be able to apply more subjective judgment to community complaints than does the current committee.
In addition, the proposed new law would wipe away the legal "presumption of correctness" that now goes with each CRG approval, and which has made it virtually impossible to get CRG decisions reversed on appeal. New factors, such as whether a project would be compatible with the existing neighborhood, could be brought into play.
In order to effectively fight a project, however, these often lightly financed community associations would have to hire expensive lawyers and experts, which might discourage them.
Zoning changes that would accompany the new system should also please some community groups. As proposed, they would eliminate a developer's ability to move density across zone lines on one tract; would allow only single family homes in some zones, which neighborhoods generally prefer; and would allow grouping of town houses in higher density zones only.
The new proposals from Hayden, a Republican elected last November, are more dramatic than changes then-Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, a Democrat, proposed last October.
Community groups and residents have complained for years about being shut out of the development process because the law requires the CRG to approve developments which have the proper zoning and which comply with county technical standards.
Arnold Jablon, the chief deputy county attorney who will shortly become county zoning commissioner for the second time, said the administrative law judge system would allow for much more "subjective review" of projects.
David Thaler, a land planner and civil engineer who often works for developers, praised the concept, and said it would not necessarily hurt developers, as long as the process didn't get bogged down in bureaucracy.
"I think the concept is probably an improvement because it plugs the communities into the process early, which means fewer misunderstandings and disputes," Thaler said. "There's nothing [for developers] to be afraid of."
Elwood Sinski, president of the county chapter of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said he has not had time to discuss the proposals with his members, but said "it would appear on the surface that it puts subjectivity into the process."