Land zoning stakes high

Balto. County gets 600 requests to alter rules on property use

Strong economy a factor

Process often pits neighborhoods against developers' profits

November 15, 1999|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Thanks in part to a muscular economy showing few signs of fatigue, Baltimore County land is looking more and more desirable -- both to those who would profit from it and those hoping to preserve it.

Hundreds of property owners, businesses and community groups this month asked their local elected officials for a big favor: Change the rules covering what can be built on their property.

"Some of it is driven by need. Some of it is driven by greed," said David Fields, director of the county Office of Community Conservation and a former planning chief. "If it's not beneficial to the county and the community, we should just say no."

It's all part of an exhaustive political exercise known in government parlance as comprehensive rezoning. Every four years, building guidelines for each corner of the county's 612 square miles are subject to change.

Despite the eye-glazing jargon and tedious public hearings that accompany rezoning, millions of dollars for developers and the future of dozens of neighborhoods hang in the balance.

Observers predicted a slow year, adhering to the conventional wisdom that Baltimore County is an aging suburban community with dwindling land for construction.

But conventional wisdom, it seems, needs fine-tuning.

By the time county planners add their ideas to the public applications, officials will face a stack of about 600 rezoning requests, according to county planning director Arnold F. Keller III.

While that's nowhere near the 1,200 proposals in 1988, it marks a 20 percent increase over what County Council members voted on four years ago.

"A lot of that may be attributable to the economic upswing," Keller said. "Things are happening. People see value."

Included in the pile are several high-profile proposals sure to draw criticism from surrounding neighborhoods.

Sweetheart Cup Co. wants to rezone 75 acres it owns along Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills, making it possible to build stores and other retail businesses. Noxell Corp., a Procter & Gamble Co. subsidiary, wants to do the same on 25 acres off York Road in Hunt Valley.

Several residential developers are tugging at the boundaries of the line separating urban and rural neighborhoods.

At its core, Baltimore County's rezoning system is as much a political process as a planning tool. Residents will have their say, and the county planning board will make recommendations. But final decisions rest with the council which, by tradition, defers to the wishes of individual councilmen on applications in their districts. Even County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger won't play a formal role.

"A decision I make could vastly increase the value of the land, and I hold that power judiciously," said council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat. "This is the most awesome power that a member of the County Council has."

Abuses of power

That power has been abused on occasion. In the mid-1980s, a former councilman pushed a zoning change for a savings-and-loan institution that had granted him a $60,000 interest-free loan. A few years earlier, several planning and zoning officials were accused of accepting bribes in exchange for favorable rulings.

"Every four years there is an orgy of divvying up the wealth," says Fields, the former planning director. "When you make somebody a millionaire, it's the public wealth that's being given away."

Council members say things are different.

They are under considerable pressure and scrutiny, they say, from community groups looking to limit what can be built around them. Council members deny being heavily lobbied by developers, attorneys and business leaders.

Kamenetz has asked his colleagues to refrain from political fund raising until the rezoning process is over in October 2000 to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.

But decisions made by politicians can conflict with the views of planning experts.

"It's frustrating when you are on the planning board and you make recommendations that are totally ignored," said Charles Klein, an insurance broker who is vice chairman of the county planning board. "You're right, they [council members] have a lot of power. Is it too much? That's a tough one."

As the rezoning process moves forward, improbable alliances could form.

The county's economic development department might be paired with neighborhood groups that are cool to the Noxell and Sweetheart proposals to convert land designated for manufacturing to retail use.

While neighbors worry about traffic congestion, county economic development director Robert L. Hannon frets about the potential loss of a shrinking resource.

"Our most valuable zones in the county are manufacturing zones," Hannon said. "They have the most flexibility, and they create export-type businesses. As a result, they bring wealth back to the community."

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