Council to hear design rules

Standards sought for developments in Baltimore County

Approval is expected

March 27, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Determined to leave a mark on a major growth center, Baltimore County planners are taking aim at sacred symbols of suburbia, from the big garage to the cul-de-sac.

Planners, reviewing development policies in a section of White Marsh that has been under a building moratorium, have proposed new design standards for that area. The standards would require, among other things, multiple connections between a new subdivision and existing streets, discourage cul-de-sacs, expand requirements for open space and strictly limit circumstances in which the rear of a house could face a street.

Ultimately, the department would like to extend the rules countywide.

Those involved are confident the standards, scheduled to be presented to the County Council today, will be approved. But there's significant disagreement about what impact they'll have.

Planners, who say their concerns often are trivialized in the development process, believe these new standards give them more power. At stake, they say, is whether the county will become a shapeless hodgepodge of developments or a grouping of inviting communities. They don't think the standards will give them veto power over developments, but they see them as a way to force builders to respond to their concerns.

Those on the development side of the issue see the standards as a matter of taste, not clear community interest, and they expect to be able to win exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

"The industry is very sensitive to having planner reviews dictate the design of projects," said Tom Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "It's a very subjective kind of decision. Is this design good? Is this other design not so good?"

For example, the planning department doesn't like cul-de-sacs because planners believe they isolate people and impede traffic flow. But, Ballentine said, homebuyers love them.

County planning Director Arnold F. Keller III said he's not impressed with the argument that because people buy houses that would violate the rules, the restrictions are merely a matter of taste. "If we don't regulate it, people will buy on waste dumps, too," he said.

Perry Ridge Court, which is in the area that would be affected by the restrictions, is doubly problematic for planners. Not only is it a cul-de-sac, but it also contains one of the development patterns most vilified by the planning department -- "panhandle" lots.

It is a central tenet of contemporary planning that old-style neighborhoods, with porch-front homes squarely facing each other across tree-lined streets, best complement the human experience.

Panhandle lots are odd clusters of houses stuck behind others and connected to the street by what amounts to a glorified driveway. They usually are built by developers as a means of squeezing more houses onto an irregular tract of land, and they tend to result in odd configurations -- the backs of some houses face the fronts or sides of others, for example.

Although panhandle lots are high on the planning department's hit list, the issue isn't so simple on Perry Ridge Court.

Mindy B. Ecolono has lived in a house at the front of a panhandle for nine years. Her neighbor's side yard and her back yard are, for practical purposes, one and the same.

"My window is right there," she said, standing in her foyer and pointing to the mass of gray siding visible through her kitchen window at the rear of her house. "It's too close. There's no privacy."

But the view is different for Paul T. Solloway, a postal clerk who has lived with his wife and their dog in one of the houses at the back of a panhandle for nine years. His side windows are about 10 feet from his neighbor's deck, but the arrangement isn't so bad, he said.

"If you get to know the people around you, it's fine," he said. "You just have to walk a little farther to get mail and put out your trash."

Keller said he doesn't want to tell people what color brick to use, but added that the department's concerns about the design of developments "tend to get trivialized" in the county approval process. The idea is to make these restrictions part of zoning law, not just the development manual, to force builders to respond meaningfully to the department's concerns.

"I've had my limit of just being brushed aside," Keller said.

Many ideas in the current proposal are listed in some form in the county's Comprehensive Manual of Development Policies. The problem, Keller said, is that they are couched as "guidelines" not "standards," meaning the burden is on the planning department to show why a developer should follow them. If the council approves the restrictions, some of the burden of proof will shift to developers.

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, whose district includes the affected area, said he supports the restrictions and expects them to win council approval.

But where planners see tough new standards, builders see room for negotiation. Ballentine said he thinks that in practice, the standards will be flexible enough to be palatable to builders and buyers.

"Our buyers can't always afford what a planning reviewer might believe is the appropriate design or the most desirable design," he said. "It's something that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, and that's basically the way this is set up."

The county planning board voted March 1 to recommend the standards.

Ellwood A. Sinsky, a homebuilder and a member of the planning board, said he thinks the proposal strikes an appropriate balance. Although there's some subjectivity to the rules, the hearings required for approval of larger developments provide ample opportunity for give and take, he said.

"I think those standards are decent. ... They set up a wish list that I think is nice to meet," Sinsky said.

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