Baltimore County has a national reputation among developers as a bad place to build because of bureaucratic red tape, according to business people at an economic development conference at Essex Community College.
They also said that changes in the development process that County Executive Roger B. Hayden is proposing will make developers more uncertain they'll gain zoning if a neighborhood objects to his proposed project.
Yesterday's conference on the future of economic development in Baltimore County drew county department heads, private development figures, County Council members and, at one point, Hayden himself.
Business people painted a grim picture for the county, which has an older populace, infrastructure and housing than do the outlying suburbs whose growth has come in the past 10 years.
With a political climate it termed anti-development and strong voter sentiment against new taxes, one panel warned that BaltimoreCounty will fall further behind its neighbors in keeping up with needs for new schools, roads and sewers. Meanwhile, growing restrictions on land use will drive prices so high that no one will want to build in the county, the group contended.
A recent consultant's study concluded that Baltimore County will need to spend up to $246 million on new schools alone in the next decade to keep up with the increasing enrollment. The county now bans development near schools more than 20 percent over capacity.
In the wake of that report, the session brought more dire predictions for the county of about 690,000 residents.
"You really are asking for long-range serious problems," said Craig M. Smith, of Creaney and Smith Developers. Even now, "there aren't very many opportunities in Baltimore County," he said.
Robert E. Latshaw, Jr., a commercial real estate broker, said, "It's amazing to me that developers as far away as California and New York have heard that Baltimore County will hold you up. If we're going to let the communities run this government . . . we'll be in the same situation in 10 or 20 years that [Baltimore] city is in now."
"The only affordable housing around is in Shrewsbury, Pa," declared Ellwood A. Sinski, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the Maryland Homebuilders Association.
Sinski said current county residents resent new town house and condominium developments, which can still be built and sold for less than $100,000 in Baltimore County.
County Planning Director P. David Fields said the county faces a political dilemma in that its citizens perceive development as running rampant even though growth is actually minimal.
Baltimore County's population grew only 5 percent in the last decade, compared with, for example, a 58 percent jump in Howard County, according to census figures. If new businesses don't move to the county and if current businesses don't stay, the county's tax base will shrink and services will decline.
"Urbanization is occurring at a faster rate than people realize," Fields said.
Bebe Kernan, vice president of Data Chromatics Inc., a land-planning firm, said the amount of county land available for use is small, due to environmental and other restrictions. "It's hard to attract businesses if they have to go to communities" for approvals, she said.
Edmund F. Haile, of Daft-McCune-Walker, a Towson engineering firm, recounted the move of the Merry-Go-Round clothing chain's warehouse operation from the Towson area to a Harford County industrial park in 1989.
Haile said that, instead of the 18 months to two years that new developments take to win approval in Baltimore County, he was astounded to find that Harford County's fast-track system granted a building permit for the clothing company's new headquarters within 10 days of the application's submission.
He complained that developers must undergo multiple reviews of the same proposals by officials from Baltimore County, the state and federal government, and that sometimes the levels of government disagree among themselves.
Hayden, who addressed the gathering after lunch and missed some of the criticism aimed his way, said that being pro-business "does not mean being pro-business at the expense of other groups."
He said he wants very much to serve and attract new business to the county, at least partly as a way to hold down taxes.
Hayden's proposal to change the development process also would seek to speed it up to help developers. However, developers fear his change that would allow a county hearing officer to weigh subjective arguments of nearby residents before ruling on a project.