Balto. Co. zoning proposal praised

Development plan to give communities more input

November 07, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Proclaiming the necessity of revitalizing older commercial areas, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. announced yesterday that he will seek a new, streamlined development process designed to give communities more input.

With the amount of open land in urban areas dwindling, the county stands at a crossroads, he said.

Either it can open rural land to sprawl or it can begin breathing new life into older neighborhoods. Smith said the regulations he is proposing will allow the county to take the latter course.

"We can keep development from encroaching on rural land. We can keep our growth areas free of congestion and sprawl, and we can protect our older, established neighborhoods," he said while unveiling his proposal at a meeting of the county Planning Board.

Reaction among those involved in the county's often contentious development process was generally positive, though community activists, developers and others said they are awaiting details.

Smith said he will introduce legislation in the County Council to create a pilot program in which seven as-yet-unnamed areas will become eligible for the new type of development.

In those areas, developers, county officials and community members would engage in a short, intensive period of collaborative planning to determine the type of development that would be most beneficial.

Nearly all of the county's traditional zoning codes would be thrown out in favor of site-specific rules.

After that process, known in other communities as a "charette," the developer would devise plans and bring them back before a county panel to ensure the final product matches the results of the collaborative planning. If the panel approves, the developer could start building.

County officials say the program could reduce the approval process from years to months.

"It will be an efficient, intensive and collaborative effort," Smith said.

Other communities have used similar techniques to encourage the creation of traditional, Main Street-type communities with a mix of residential, retail and office uses.

Geoffrey Ferrell, a Washington-based urban planner who consulted with the county on creation of the codes, said the zoning that has been practiced in the United States in recent decades has led to unattractive communities and unnecessary confrontation between developers and residents.

"This is not something imported from Mars," Ferrell said of Smith's proposal. "It's a return to fundamental American principles."

It is also a continuation of Baltimore County's long tradition of progressive land use, said John W. Frece, spokesman for the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland. The county has set off most of its land from intensive development; encouraging revitalization in established areas will remove pressure to change that, he said.

"You've got to make the most of what you've got, and this sounds like a way of doing it," Frece said.

Arnold Jablon, a Towson attorney and former county permits director who had a large hand in shaping the current development process, said Smith's proposal has many positive features. But the details must be considered carefully, he said.

Donna Spicer, a Loch Raven community activist, said she is withholding judgment until she sees how the plan will work. She said a number of properties in her community could benefit.

"I see a lot of positive things in this," she said. "But the devil is in the details."

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