Balto. Co. aims to close code loophole

1992 law intended for small businesses is used by developers

March 28, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In the wake of a contentious proposal to build a retail "big box" store in Bowleys Quarters, the Baltimore County Council aims to close a loophole that allows large commercial developers to sidestep community input meetings.

"It was a good idea when created as part of the county code, but the exemption has turned into a loophole for the bigger developers," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat from Perry Hall.

Gardina said the seven-member council has given its support to ensure more public participation in the planning process and to change how the planning office's Development Review Committee grants "limited exemptions" to developers.

The move was proposed in a resolution introduced and discussed yesterday at a council work session. The planning department will study the resolution and recommend changes to the 1992 legal provision that established the exemptions. Gardina said the law was created originally to help small businesses and homeowners get their projects completed. However, larger developers started using the provision.

Gardina said he became concerned after David S. Cordish, one of the region's most prominent developers, told community leaders in Bowleys Quarters that he would build a Wal-Mart on the doorstep of the peninsula hamlet, which has many creeks, more than a dozen marinas and a sprouting of expensive waterfront homes.

Residents say the huge retail outlet, expected next year, would draw thousands of customers a week. Some fear it will spell the end of small businesses, cause traffic congestion and harm the sensitive marine environment.

Cordish, who invited Bowleys Quarters community leaders to his office last week to soothe their concerns, was granted a limited exemption for the Wal-Mart at his Carroll Island Plaza shopping center near Frog Mortar Creek.

The exemption issued by the Development Review Committee, a consortium of agencies, allowed Cordish to advance his proposal without having a community information meeting or submitting his plan to a hearing officer.

Examples like this, Gardina and other officials say, allow developers, through a legitimate step in the planning process, to avoid costly delays, often months, in the building process. The Wal-Mart plan does face review, however.

Under Cordish's exemption, the Bureau of Development Plans Review in the Department of Permits and Development Management will examine traffic concerns and potential conflicts with nearby businesses, such as Chesapeake Yachting Center. County and state environmental agencies also will study the Wal-Mart plan.

County Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, said the limited-exemption rule "can use some fine-tuning."

"Some people outside government get frustrated with a system they don't understand," Skinner said. "If there should be a procedure for fast-tracking a project, we should find a way to have citizen involvement."

In Cordish's case, the exemption was issued because no public works additions or changes would be needed because road, water and sewerage infrastructure exist.

The exercise of submitting a plan to the county - from a backyard deck to a multilevel office building - and getting it approved is seen by many as a journey through a maze of regulations and bureaucracies.

In the last fiscal year, the permits department issued 35,506 permits, including ones for 2,300 new buildings and for more than 9,000 homeowners with plumbing changes.

Only the most knowledgeable of community warriors, such as Donna Spicer, who leads the Loch Raven Community Council, know the subtleties of the planning system and can spot a development proposal in the county pipeline.

"It just seems that over the last several years large commercial and residential developers have taken advantage of the limited exemption to avoid explaining things to a community," she said. "A change is certainly needed so neighborhoods have more of a voice in the early stages of developments."

Some developers, such as McDonald's Corp., approach community groups first in an effort to gather support before they build.

"The corporation and franchise owner gave us the details on their plan, and we worked together just fine before their restaurant opened last February at Loch Raven and Taylor Avenue," Spicer said.

Added Louis W. Miller, executive director of the Greater Timonium Community Council: "Citizens don't have enough say in these final plans. Take the development of the York Road corridor. Some had informal meetings, but I'd estimate that we were involved in 20 percent of the projects over eight years."

Surprisingly, the County Council's proposal has drawn lukewarm support from Rob Hoffman, a Towson attorney representing Cordish in the Wal-Mart project and about two dozen other developers in Baltimore County.

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