Fighting City Hall -- within reason

July 10, 1995

The old cliche "You can't fight City Hall" isn't applicable anymore when it comes to development. As a recent report in The Evening Sun noted, citizens have learned to organize into a political force. Citizens Against the Stadium II, for example, helped sink the Redskins in Laurel. Baltimore County residents threw such a fit over a planned Wal-Mart that the retailer gave up. For decades, citizens may as well have been talking to the wall when they spoke out about big projects. It's about time their feelings were taken seriously.

But it would be a mistake to view the conflict between citizens and developers as a fight between underdog heroes and the Evil Empire. Citizens aren't underdogs anymore. Some observers think they might even have accrued too much power. Yet developers still have the upper hand. Mainly, though, it's wrong to look at the citizen opponent as the Noble Little Guy, because citizens are not always right. They represent one view, the view of homeowners who want to protect their quality of life. They do exactly what developers do -- look out for themselves.

Sometimes citizens make reasonable demands. But it is unreasonable for homeowners who move next to vacant, commercial-zoned lots to expect those lots to stay empty. That's what has happened in Owings Mills, where residents who fought Wal-Mart are now battling a Target store. The site sits in the middle of a commercial strip on land zoned for Wal-Marts and the like. The property owner has a right to develop it.

Of course, just because a project complies with zoning doesn't mean citizens shouldn't have a say in how it is carried out. Details such as location of an entrance and placement of dumpsters can make a big difference to a community.

Baltimore and Harford counties already require developers to meet with residents. Unfortunately, Anne Arundel, Carroll and all of Howard -- except for Columbia -- do not. These counties would get better development projects if they changed the laws to strike a balance between citizens and developers.

Citizens should remember, too, that if they feel a site is unsuitable for commercial or industrial use, though allowed by the zoning, the time to argue for changes in land use is during countywide comprehensive rezoning hearings, which occur every few years in each county. If citizens don't use their clout then, they can't really complain later when Wal-Mart asks to build where the law says it can.

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