Smith's growth plan assailed

Community groups say they could be excluded

`Something fishy about this'

Balto. County proposal aims to speed development

December 01, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s proposal for streamlining the development process has come under attack from community organizations, who say they would be excluded from critical project planning meetings that Smith had promised would promote greater public involvement.

The county executive's proposal, presented to the Planning Board last month, calls for the establishment of special revitalization districts. As planning for redevelopment projects in these districts begins, developers and community members would take part in an intensive set of meetings. But when it is time to reach a consensus on what is going to be built, only individuals who live in or own or operate a business in the "renaissance opportunity district" would have a say.

"We wanted people who were immediately affected by the buildable plan to be those who have the role to play in arriving at consensus," Smith said. "We thought it should be somebody within the renaissance opportunity district that should have that right."

Community association leaders around the county disagree -- strongly.

"Man, this is starting to stink," said Jackie Nickel, an Essex community activist who was invited by the Smith administration to a meeting on the proposed regulations. "There's something fishy about this if the community associations aren't involved."

Smith's proposal would allow "stakeholders" to work with a developer and come to an agreement on a redevelopment project. In exchange for community members getting a seat at the table early in the planning process, developers would not be held to existing zoning restrictions and could win quicker approval for their projects.

Smith's bill would allow the County Council to designate seven "renaissance opportunity districts" -- one per council district -- where the new regulations would be applied. Smith said it would be up to the council to decide how large they would be or what they would include.

But the draft legislation Smith released narrowly defines who would get a say in the planning stage, and who would have the right to appeal if things go wrong.

Existing development regulations allow property owners, community associations, corporations, partnerships or other entities affected by a development to participate in input meetings and to appeal decisions.

Under Smith's proposal, only "individuals" -- a term that excludes partnerships, corporations and associations -- would have that right.

"That doesn't sound like community input if you're excluding community groups that are the watchdogs of the community," said Ruth Baisden, president of the Greater Parkville Community Council.

Even the Dundalk Renaissance Corp., a nonprofit group created to carry out the redevelopment plan for the east-side community, would be excluded from giving input or filing an appeal unless its headquarters was in one of the districts.

Smith said he wanted to exclude larger organizations because they tend to represent much broader parts of the county.

"They're all over the area, not necessarily in the renaissance opportunity district," he said.

Community group leaders bristled at the suggestion that they do not represent the views of residents. Since Baltimore County has no incorporated municipalities, community associations are the most local representation people have, said David Marks, president of the Perry Hall Improvement Association.

"The type of coalition building the county wants is already being done in community organizations around the county," Marks said. "There is a great diversity of opinion in community organizations."

In 1992, county rules governing who could be involved in development hearings were expanded to include anyone whose property rights could be adversely affected by a decision.

The idea was that people in Catonsville shouldn't be protesting developments in Essex but that a broader set of people than adjacent property owners deserved to have a say.

That was an important protection for communities, said Randallstown community activist Ella White Campbell. Chances are that any given property owner won't know the ins and outs of county development law, but allowing community associations into the process lets people with more expertise offer a counterbalance to developers and their attorneys, she said.

"They are doing this because they know historically that the immediate property owners who have been affected often have no knowledge of what is going on," Campbell said. "It is the larger community organizations that point to where the problem is."

There is also strength in numbers, Marks added. A property owner might go on vacation or have to work during an input meeting, but a community association can always muster someone, and if necessary, a crowd, to voice concerns, he said.

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