This PUD's for you

February 04, 1994

Baltimore County's urban business districts must have help if they're to avoid the seedy disrepair that has afflicted sections of Baltimore City.

In pre-recession days, when public funds were more readily available, the easy thing to do was to throw money at a problem-ridden area. But in Baltimore County, where many agencies have been shrunk and hundreds of public positions eliminated, the leaner and meaner government is less able to cure its ills through an infusion of cash.

Other methods for enlivening the business districts must be found. The county planning board appears to have one in its proposed legislation to allow redevelopment of commercial properties in those districts without requiring costly, time-consuming zoning changes.

Developers complain that launching projects in the county's urban districts has been made inordinately difficult by outdated zoning regulations written decades ago. In the 1950s, say, it was usually necessary to separate offices from factories. However, today's cleaner technologies have made it more possible to mix commercial uses. Thus the planning board's recommendation of planned unit development (PUD) form of zoning that would enable various commercial projects to exist side by side. One upshot is that the zoning process in these cases could be wrapped up in a matter of months instead of the customary two to six years.

In return, the county would impose strict design standards and expect "public benefits" beyond those that normally zoned projects tend to offer -- for example, jobs and tax revenues greater than the norm, recreation areas, affordable housing and historic preservation. Also, no project could go forward without input from the affected neighborhoods.

County planning officials stress that the new zoning would be available only in the urbanized areas of the jurisdiction, not in its rural reaches. In fact, key benefits of the concept are the &L containment of development to places where it already proliferates and the resultant preservation of the county's greener parts.

No doubt the planning board's recommendation will be fine-tuned as it goes through a public hearing and then County Council meetings. Most council members, though, are said to be receptive to the proposal, and rightly so. Along with a proposed measure that would give tax credits for new construction in the business districts, the PUD bill is the kind of action the county needs to take if new life is to be injected into its older communities.

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