Rezoning hearings to begin

Quadrennial process focuses attention on Balto. Co. council

Citizen input sought

Monthlong hearings could alter physical, political landscape

September 05, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

For the seven members of the Baltimore County Council, it's showtime.

Every four years, the council emerges from the long shadow of the county executive to conduct an intriguing civic and political exercise that shapes the county's quality of life and economic health for decades to come.

In the dry parlance of planners, the process is called comprehensive rezoning. In real terms, it means the potential use of every inch of the county's 640 square miles is up for grabs.

The field across the street can become a sea of town homes. A vacant lot can become a gas station. Grassy hills sloping toward fragile streams can be protected forever.

Speculative developers can make millions or go bust. Preservationists can sleep soundly or pack up and move to rural Garrett County in disgust.

Casual observers will need a playbook to distinguish among the county's 34 zones and the differences, say, between DR-2 and DR-3.5 zoning. And each decision lies with a single elected official.

"I would say it's probably one of the greatest burdens and responsibilities a councilman has," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a North County-Owings Mills Republican.

A tedious process that began 13 months ago has entered the home stretch. Tomorrow, McIntire will hold the first of seven public hearings - one will be held in each councilmanic district - to gather input on rezoning applications.

The quadrennial exercise ends Oct. 10, when the full council meets to vote on all 619 requests.

Tension fills process

This month's public discussions could drag on into the early-morning hours, and there's plenty of tension built into the process.

Developers and environmentalists will find themselves pitted against each other. County planners have recommended zoning changes intended to preserve thousands of acres in rural areas, but some landowners bristle at additional restrictions.

Elected officials may find themselves at odds with planning professionals and the county planning board, which has conducted its own lengthy hearings and made recommendations on each application.

Final action rests with council members, who, by tradition, defer to the wishes of the member who represents the area in question.

Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, said he convened a group of eastern county community leaders to advise him on his first zoning cycle, but warned them at the outset: "Of course, it's me who will decide."

Planner sees patterns

Having immersed himself in the issues for more than a year, county planning director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller sees a continuation of trends begun a decade ago.

"There's a firm distinction between urban and rural," Keller said.

"In the rural world, there's a much stronger move toward conserving rural resources. ... Within the urban areas, the two big themes are community conservation and economic development," he said.

Citizen groups will closely monitor the rezoning, aware of questionable decisions over the decades that have contributed to traffic jams on York Road, a hodge-podge of businesses along Reisterstown Road and a glut of townhouses in Owings Mills.

"There are some outstanding decisions made, and some bummers made," said Don Gerding, a graphics consultant who is zoning chairman for the Greater Towson Council, an umbrella group for about three dozen neighborhood associations.

Still, elected officials usually listen to the concerns of community groups, Gerding said. "Historically, we find most times the councilmen are receptive, if we do our homework. But that's key. You can't object just for the sake of it. You have to be able to answer questions."

Past filled with scandal

That hasn't always been true. With its ability to confer wealth on business owners and developers, the county zoning process has a seamy history.

In 1980, a federal investigation resulted in the indictment of a Towson attorney who was paying bribes for favorable decisions. The attorney pleaded guilty. Five years later, a county councilman was accused of rezoning property to benefit a business associate who had granted him an interest-free loan, while denying other similar requests. No formal charges were filed.

The current councilmen say they want to remove the influence of money from their decisions. As happened four years ago, they suspended fund-raising between August 1999, when zoning applications were first filed, and next month's vote.

"The appearance of impropriety is worse than any impropriety itself," said Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, explaining why he supports the fund-raising ban.

But some critics say they still smell the stench of money.

Ruth Baisden, a community activist from Parkville, said she was shocked in 1996 when Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, told her she shouldn't hire a lawyer to fight a proposal for a business expansion near her home, and should instead donate the money to his campaign.

"He said he gets his money through rezoning issues for his campaign," Baisden said.

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