Balto. County zoning in flux

Community groups increasing power in land-use reviews

Yearlong effort has begun

Builders worry needs for housing won't be met, rules ignored

August 08, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Maybe you fear that grove of trees behind your house will sprout condominiums. Or the nearby vacant field will be paved over. Or perhaps you want to cash in one day on your land, selling it for a subdivision.

The future of every parcel in Baltimore County will be determined in the coming months as the county begins its comprehensive zoning process -- a yearlong exercise in lobbying and deliberation that will end with each of the seven councilmen deciding the fate of land in his district.

"From the citizens' standpoint, the comprehensive rezoning is critical," said J. Carroll Holzer, a lawyer who has represented many community groups in their land battles.

During the process, which began last week, any resident, developer or property owner can seek to rezone any parcel.

But this is not the Baltimore County it once was.

Thirty years ago, when the county was growing rapidly, the council changed the zoning on properties to benefit campaign contributors. County Executive Dale Anderson went to prison on charges that he took kickbacks from architects and engineers.

"The old adage was, `Every four years was Christmas,' " said Jack Dillon, director of the Valleys Planning Council and a planner who worked for the county for 30 years.

In recent years, community groups have become more powerful, making it clear that they are tired of congestion, sprawl and the loss of farmland.

"The citizens have gained the upper hand in the zoning process," Dillon said.

During the last comprehensive zoning four years ago, their influence was seen as the County Council reduced the development densities of thousands of acres in rural areas and older neighborhoods.

Since then, neighborhood groups have continued to lobby for more growth controls and the council has often complied -- limiting expansions at Greenspring Station, reducing housing densities in the Honeygo community, and most recently, negotiating with Arundel Corp. to scale back a planned community on the Greenspring Quarry site.

Community associations are influential because they are more knowledgeable, said David Marks, president of the Perry Hall Improvement Association.

"Years of fighting developers has made us much more aware of the process," he said.

But activists believe builders still have the advantage in the development process. Rarely has the county turned down projects if the proper zoning was in place.

"That is why the comprehensive zoning is so important," Holzer said. "Once the zoning is in place, half the battle has been lost."

The issues this year will be similar to those community groups supported the last time around: reducing housing densities in older neighborhoods, limiting encroachment by businesses on residential communities and preserving farmland.

County officials will be trying to balance those goals with the need to retain enough commercial land for economic development.

Marks said he expects a number of rezoning issues will be raised in Perry Hall, which is adjusting to the growth of the Honeygo community. The councilmen representing Towson and Catonsville said they expect to see rezoning issues about where business districts bump against residential neighborhoods. And Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican whose 3rd District ranges from the townhouse developments in Owings Mills to the farms of northern Baltimore County, said he expects a number of issues about agricultural land.

But the number of rezoning requests will be far fewer than during the 1970s and 1980s, when the county was growing rapidly. Then, the council reviewed more than 1,000 zoning change petitions. Four years ago, there were fewer than 500 requests for changes.

Baltimore County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller said he expects a similar number this time.

The public has until Nov. 1 to make requests. The planning board will hold hearings in April, and the council will conduct them in the fall of next year, with final decisions due that October.

Although the council votes as a whole on each request, in reality, deference is usually given to the councilman in whose district the property lies.

Keller said community associations should be thinking about the future of land in their neighborhoods. "If I have any words of quasi-wisdom, it's: Pull out the zoning maps and drive around your community, and make sure everything is OK," he said.

Homebuilders worry about the increasing power of community groups.

"We're concerned that there be an available supply of land to accommodate the housing needs," said Tom Ballentine of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "The momentum to downzone is starting to threaten that."

Though the process is better than it was 30 years ago, it leaves much to be desired, Holzer said. He has helped shepherd a group called Project 98, which is lobbying for changes in how the county makes land-use decisions.

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