The 'good neighbor' zone

Land: Those who have navigated the process of changing zoning say talking to community leaders is the best way to ensure success.

October 24, 1999|By Nancy Jones Bombrest | Nancy Jones Bombrest,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Bonnie Dahbura saw the duplex on Falls Road, just north of the city line in Baltimore County, she thought it would make the perfect location for her interior design shop.

Although she knew the property, one of the first houses built on that congested segment of Falls Road, wasn't zoned for business, she decided she had to have it.

"You know how sometimes you walk into a place and you just know you love it? Well, I really loved it," said Dahbura, who with her husband, Anton, bought the house in 1991. "We bought it hoping to use it for our business. I do primarily residential work and have an interest in restoration and rehabilitation-type work. So the house had a lot of appeal to me."

In 1992, during the four-year comprehensive zoning process for Baltimore County, the Dahburas decided to try to get their home rezoned to allow for their interior design business.

They hired a lawyer at a cost of close to $6,000 to help them through the procedure. But in the end, their conversations with their neighbors fell on deaf ears and they were turned down.

When the process came around again in 1996, new neighbors had moved in. They gave it another shot and found success.

"The second time, we felt that we didn't have that much money to invest again [in a lawyer], so we did it ourselves and we were more fortunate," said Dahbura. "We talked to several of the neighbors and told them what we were planning to do.

"I think that it's easier for an individual than it would be for a large developer. I think sometimes [neighbors] can detect sincerity when you talk one on one," she said.

After meeting with community members, the Dahburas agreed to a covenant that restricted the uses for their property but allowed the interior design business.

Similar requests are starting to churn through a four-year cycle as the window for submitting zoning requests to the county for 2000 gets ready to close Nov. 1. The comprehensive zoning map process, which began in August and won't finish until next October, is one of Baltimore County's mechanisms for evaluating and rezoning properties.

As the final days of the open filing period tick away, David S. Thaler, president of D. S. Thaler and Associates, a civil engineering and planning firm, compares the process to a wedding.

"There are tremendous preparations that take place before a wedding. We are like the caterers," he said. "The homeowners have an idea of what they want, and community associations have an idea of what they want to do, but the physical work -- the cooking -- we have to prepare."

Randy Gerstmyer also found that talking to neighbors first to get their support seemed to ensure success for changing the zoning of a house in Timonium from mixed-use residential to residential/office in the 1996 cycle.

"I found a small piece of property off York and Oakway roads, and it was strictly a residential piece of property," said Gerstmyer, who runs CTI Publications Inc., a 118-year-old family business that produces technical reference books for the food industry.

After contacting neighborhood leaders, Gerstmyer was told that the community didn't want a commercial operation in the neighborhood.

He asked to meet with them, and after discussing his intent, members of the Yorkshire-Haverford Community Association and the Greater Timonium Community Council agreed to back him on the change.

"I told them there would be no street trade at all. They requested, and we agreed in writing, that we would not try to change the zoning again for another 10 years."

Although the procedure can become complicated, county staffers are available to help people through the process, said Gary L. Kerns, chief of comprehensive and community planning for the Baltimore County Office of Planning.

"The first thing is to make sure you know the zoning that you have right now and to determine that you absolutely need a change of zoning. A lot of people come in and want to change their zoning, but they are not quite sure what they have," said Kerns.

That information can be found on maps in the county planning and zoning offices.

The first step in the process includes an application that can be picked up at the planning office or on the county's Web site at

The fee depends on the size of the project, but is roughly $500 for properties of less than 2 acres inside the planned water and sewer service area or for properties of less than 10 acres outside the planned water and sewer area.

The cost rises to $1,250 for properties of 2 or more acres inside the planned water and sewer area and properties of 10 or more acres outside the planned water and sewer area.

A community association can also raise a zoning issue for $75, but the association must be able to present certain documents, including a copy of its bylaws or articles of incorporation and the boundaries of the association.

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