Zoning system shifts urged

Council to weigh suggested reforms in Baltimore County

`Makes more sense'

Ban on withdrawals, shortening process to 12 months called for

November 23, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Council will take up a set of proposals to reform its arduous Comprehensive Zoning Map process this winter in an effort to speed up the system while improving public notification.

The process in which the Planning Board and then the County Council consider zoning changes to hundreds of properties across the county takes place every four years, most recently last year. It is complicated and lengthy, and can lead to controversy when property owners seek more intensive -- and lucrative -- uses for their property than neighbors would like.

The reform proposals, which would not radically alter the zoning process, were drafted by an advisory committee consisting of developers, lawyers, residents and planners.

For example, the cardboard signs posted at properties being considered for rezoning last year didn't fare well in the wind and rain, so the committee suggested using plastic signs.

Probably the most significant change would shorten the process. During 18 months every four years, the county accepts zoning change applications, schedules public hearings and issues decisions. The committee recommends cutting that period to 12 months.

"At 18 months, it's grueling," said Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican who plans to introduce the reform legislation in January.

"What happens is, people wait until the last minute" to file applications, he said. "Nothing is harmed by reducing the time period; it just makes more sense."

One thrust of the recommendations is to improve public notification. Besides changing the signs, the committee suggested requiring the applicant to provide a mailing list of properties adjacent to the land in question.

Now, the planning staff has to find those addresses, which prevents it from conducting a more substantive study of the zoning requests, Skinner said. Because it takes so much time to find the addresses, owners of neighboring properties often complain that they aren't notified until days before a hearing on a zoning change application, he said.

The committee's report suggested that the Planning Department hire temporary employees to verify the addresses and handle the mailings.

Another recommendation is to prohibit people from withdrawing their applications for zoning changes.

Once a zoning change is applied for, the council grants the request, leaves the zoning alone or makes the zoning more restrictive. Some applicants, fearing an unfavorable decision, request that their applications be withdrawn.

The idea behind the proposed change, said Leslie M. Pittler, a Towson lawyer who was co-chairman of the committee, is that once a zoning request is filed, it should go through the entire process. Prohibiting withdrawals prevents people from trying to test the waters, he said.

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