Good zoning without warfare

June 23, 1996|By Elise Armacost

AMONG THE 483 requests for rezoning currently sitting in the Baltimore County planning office is one involving a five-acre lot in Rodgers Forge. It's far from the most important rezoning issue the County Council will decide this fall, or the one with the most potential impact on a community.

The Francis Weiskittel property at the corner of Bellona Avenue and Stevenson Lane is noteworthy for one reason only: As proof that a piece of land doesn't have to turn into a war zone once somebody starts thinking about developing it. That, indeed, a property owner and the community might both come out ahead if the former allows neighbors a say and the latter gets past the notion that any kind of development is evil.

A bit of history:

The Weiskittel property has been owned by Weiskittels since 1925. Ford Weiskittel, a former Johns Hopkins University professor who currently researches ancient maritime history, says his uncle first lived in the house that still sits on the site, then sold it to his father, Francis, in 1947. ''I grew up there. I have a great emotional attachment to the neighborhood,'' he says, which explains a lot about why he's been willing to listen to what the neighbors have to say.

Zoned for townhouses

Since Francis Weiskittel died, Ford Weiskittel and his siblings have been trying to decide what to do with the estate. Selling has always been an obvious possibility. And since most of the property is zoned DR16, a dense zoning that usually translates into townhouses or apartments, the community initially feared they'd get townhouses or apartments. So the Rodgers Forge Community Association asked the county to down-zone the parcel to 3.5 single-family homes per acre.

The association did something else, too. It contacted Ford Weiskittel to explain why residents were taking this action. ''I really wasn't looking forward to making that call,'' says Jean Duvall, chairman of the community's zoning committee. ''My palms were sweaty. But he was reasonable, and we were reasonable. We realized he was a good neighbor.'' And they started talking.

School crowding

The residents explained that they were afraid townhouses would generate too much traffic and further crowd their already packed elementary school. ''I was sympathetic,'' Mr. Weiskittel says. ''I used to walk up Dumbarton Road to [that] school.''

At that point he and the residents started talking about what could be done with the property that would benefit them both. ''We were trying to think of a project that would have the least amount of impact on the community,'' Ms. Duvall says. ''He wanted something where he could ride by and say, 'This is where I grew up,' and be proud of what was on the land.''

Someone suggested an assisted-living community for the elderly. The community liked it because elderly people don't have small children and they don't drive very much. Mr. Weiskittel liked it ''because it would add something to the Rodgers Forge community it doesn't have.''

The community association withdrew its request for down-zoning and instead endorsed extending the DR16 zoning to the entire five acres. County Planning Director Arnold F. ''Pat'' Keller says he advised residents to forget their fears about the dense zoning and think instead about how it would give them the flexibility to choose the very best design. Granted, this required a leap of faith. But the association made it.

Proposals from developers have been flowing in, Mr. Weiskittel says, and he has been sharing them with the community. ''I'm doing it backward,'' he says. ''Usually somebody hooks up with a developer and says this is what I'm going to do whether anybody likes it or not. I'm saying, 'What would you like me to do?' There's no sense me liking it if they don't like it.''

Of course, it is too early to declare this project a success for both the Weiskittels and the community. As Ms. Duvall notes, ''Not every single soul in every single community'' supports the assisted-living housing idea. The rezoning process is a long way from over; then comes the business of choosing a a contractor willing to build on the trust that has been established so far. The development process is a lengthy one, prone to snags along the way.

Still, planners closely associated with the project agree that this case is unusual in all the right ways. One doesn't often see considerate dialogue evolve once a community embarks on a course that would cost the property owner money. Mr. Keller says this is the way development ought to work -- with both sides less concerned about fighting over zoning densities than exploring what kinds of projects might make the community a better place.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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