Smith to unveil growth measure

Plan would relax zoning for redeveloping sites if community is involved

November 06, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is set to unveil his first major legislative initiative today - a new development process designed to speed revitalization of underused or vacant commercial properties in older communities.

Dubbed "Renaissance Redevelopment Regulations," Smith's proposal would give developers more flexibility and allow them to obtain approval faster on sites approved by the County Council.

It would also give county officials and the public the chance to provide ideas at the beginning of a project rather than after the developer has made a plan, as is now the case.

"I ask the question, how are we ever going to have renaissance redevelopment if the process can take seven years?" Smith said yesterday. "There will be nobody who will want to become involved.

"It is critical that we develop a process where it is a collaboration of community, developer and county government, where we get a buildable plan and make certain that plan is executed."

The regulations, to be outlined at today's Planning Board meeting, would allow developers to circumvent virtually all traditional development and zoning codes on approved sites if they agree to give community members substantial say in the project's initial design.

Smith, who has made community revitalization one of his priorities, said it is imperative for the county not just to talk about revitalization, but to also create a process that will get shovels into the ground.

The details of how the process would work aren't final. The executive will be circulating draft legislation to council members and Planning Board members in the coming days and is likely to introduce a bill next month or in January, said his spokesman, Damian O'Doherty.

The idea is this: A developer would identify a site for redevelopment. If the County Council decided the site was appropriate, the developer would be required to assemble a team of designers and a facilitator who would conduct meetings with community members and representatives of county agencies during a short period, probably a week to 10 days.

The developer and community members would not be limited by traditional restrictions such as setbacks, minimum parking requirements and zoning but would create a set of rules appropriate to that site.

After the planning period, the developer would have a short period, probably two or three months, to turn the concepts agreed to by the community into a nuts-and-bolts plan.

The developer would then take the plan to a county panel, which would determine whether the plan conforms to the results of the community process. If it does, the developer would have the green light to start building.

From a developer's standpoint, these regulations could be extremely advantageous, said Larry Rosenberg, an Owings Mills developer who used extensive community ideas to build the WaterView development in Middle River.

Not only would it allow more flexibility and faster approval, but the community suggestions would also help developers know what there is a market for, Rosenberg said.

"There will be a learning curve for some of the developers, but I think it will work," he said.

The key, said Dick Parsons - a west Towson community activist who is chairman of the Community Conservation Action Group - will be to make sure the rules are firm and allow no exceptions or changes after the planning.

"It makes sense, but there's got to be no fancy words - no ifs, ands or buts," Parsons said. "There cannot be any slippage of any kind whatever. Otherwise, it will fail and undermine zoning as we know it."

Smith said that's the idea. He said he wants to create a process with accountability so that what community members and developers agree to is what is built.

He said he thinks that will make people more comfortable with development in established communities and remove much of the contention from the revitalization process.

"When people mention change, just that term, there's an immediate negative reaction because `I know what's there now, and I don't know what change means,'" Smith said.

"They're going to know what change means. All the stakeholders are going to know what change means from the get-go."

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