Reinventing zoning

November 12, 2003

IF BALTIMORE County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has his way, the region's largest jurisdiction will soon join a small but growing revolt against the straitjacket strictures of traditional zoning. Up to seven communities will be allowed to write their own codes. The goal: cutting red tape and speeding up revitalization of decaying commercial strips.

The County Council should support this radical experiment when enabling legislation is introduced in the next few weeks. From Randallstown to the U.S. 40 corridor, the current zoning approach has failed to spur viable redevelopment; it's time to try alternatives.

"It is legally difficult to build good urban places in the United States," planning experts Andres Duany and Emily Talen wrote last year in Fordham Urban Law Journal. "The vast majority of conventional zoning codes prohibit the replication of our best examples of urbanism -- places like Nantucket, Williamsburg, or even `Main Street U.S.A.' in Disneyland. This situation has been profoundly damaging."

The backlash against sprawl has spawned a movement that advocates scrapping detailed restrictions based on existing zoning categories. Instead, community groups, developers and planners brainstorm about the best way to quickly revive a commercial strip by rebuilding it and combining retail, office and residential uses. An agreement about ultimate design also is reached through this informal process.

This approach, backed by Mr. Smith for Baltimore County, has won favor in Sarasota and Fort Myers, Fla. It is also being tried in Arlington County, Va. The goal there is to revive a 3.5-mile section of Columbia Pike, which fell on hard times after development shifted to land along a nearby highway.

Geoffrey Ferrell, a Washington-based urban planner, told the Baltimore County Planning Board last week that reinvestment along Columbia Pike had shot up since "form-based zoning" was adopted earlier this year. Brainstorming there has produced redevelopment plans that increase density, require new structures to be built out to the sidewalk and outlaw parking lots in front of buildings.

The result, he said, is a pedestrian-friendly streetscape that is in keeping with the feel of the traditional American Main Street. That would be a refreshing change along the corridors of Baltimore County.

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