County plan for faster approval of development moves forward

Proposal giving residents more say goes to board

November 21, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. sent draft legislation to the Planning Board yesterday calling for a new development process designed to create traditional Main Street-type communities featuring a mix of shops, offices and homes.

The draft fleshes out Smith's proposal, announced two weeks ago, to give developers proposing projects in older communities the chance for quick approvals. In exchange, the developers would engage in an intensive, seven- to 14-day collaboration with county officials and community members, known as a "charette."

"We believe the renaissance redevelopment pilot program will transform communities in Baltimore County," said Jeff Long, the deputy planning director who led the effort to create the legislation.

The idea has met with widespread interest from community activists, who relish the idea of providing ideas at the beginning of the development process instead of the end, as is now the case. But some skepticism remains because of the often contentious nature of the current process.

The draft regulations would be used in seven districts designated by the council. The new rules would allow developers and community members, working with an independent facilitator, to throw out zoning and other county regulations in favor of a site-specific plan. The developer would then have 90 days to turn that plan into site maps and blueprints.

If they are judged by a panel of county department heads to match what the community agreed to, the developer is given approval to build, and what could have taken years under traditional development rules could be completed in months.

But the regulations go beyond the process to specify the types of developments that would be allowed in the so-called renaissance districts. The proposed rules specify that developments include a town square or some other central feature, encourage walking and hide parking behind buildings or underground.

The proposal requires that developments include a mix of uses and says they should have a dense core of shops, offices and residences surrounded by less tightly packed homes on the fringes.

The Planning Department conducted a survey in 2001-2002 in which it showed county residents pictures of different neighborhoods so people could say what they liked and what they didn't. The county found that people liked traditional, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, though few of them were being developed in the county.

"We're not meeting that need with current development regulations," Long said.

The rules would allow people who live in the renaissance district or who participate in the planning meetings to appeal a development plan to the county's Board of Appeals within 18 days after it is approved, compared to the 30 days in current development regulations, for a $1,000 fee - three times the normal cost of an appeal.

Long said that in exchange for community members' getting more of a say in the beginning of the process, developers would get a speeded-up appeals process and more certainty.

The proposal includes a sunset provision so that the rules would become void after three years unless the County Council decided to extend them.

The Planning Board set a public hearing on the draft for Jan. 15. In the meantime, Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III said, the county will conduct extensive outreach to community groups in an effort to get feedback.

The way the legislation is being crafted is a major departure for the county. The draft will be posted on the county's Web site, www.co.ba.md.us, and as Smith and Planning Department staff receive feedback, they plan to make changes and post them.

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