Smith seeks input for plan

Balto. Co. executive shifts redevelopment strategy

`We want an open process'

Community activists laud inclusion, fear fast pace

December 15, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Hoping to quell criticism from community groups, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has reversed a decision that limited their role in his high-profile community redevelopment program.

The change in strategy is part of an unprecedented effort to build support for the legislation, a top priority for the executive, but a source of confusion for community activists and others. Tomorrow, Smith will go so far as to hold an open meeting in his office to solicit input on how best to get input on his bill.

Since criticism of the measure began to surface a week ago, Smith has been on an input offensive.

Last week, at the Community Conservation Advisory Group's holiday party, the executive acknowledged that he was wrong to try to keep community organizations out of project planning meetings, and he went out of his way to convince members that no opinion will be left behind.

"We want an open process. We want input," Smith told the group. "We want communities' participation in the pilot project, and we're getting it."

Typically, county executives don't unveil complex legislation and then seek public comment after the fact. Posting early drafts of a bill on the county's Web site, as Smith has done, is unprecedented.

Government veterans and community leaders give Smith high marks for seeking public reaction and acknowledging his mistake. But many say they have found the process awkward and confusing.

At first, drafts of the bill were hard to obtain. When community leaders got them, they often ended up with different versions. Presently, at least four point-by-point critiques of the bill, written by attorneys and community leaders, are circulating around the county, none of which reflects Smith's latest changes.

"He's had like six versions out there. ... You don't know how to respond because you're not sure what you're responding to," said Wayne M. Skinner, a former county councilman from Towson.

Still, Skinner and others said they believe Smith's intentions are good and that his proposal is intriguing.

Under Smith's plan the County Council would establish seven "renaissance districts" in older neighborhoods.

A place at the table

Developers working in those zones would be granted quicker approvals and be exempted from zoning laws. In exchange, they would give community groups a significant role at the beginning of the planning process through a series of intensive meetings known as "charettes."

In these meetings, a facilitator would work to develop a consensus between the developer and community members on what would be built.

Initially, Smith said the facilitator could only take into account the opinions of "individuals" who live or run a business in the districts.

Community associations, long the counterweight to developers in the county, would have been left out. He has changed his mind on that point, but who exactly would get a say has yet to be redefined.

Smith says his bill would promote more creative, community-friendly development. In addition, approvals could be obtained in months rather than years, and much of the antagonism generated by such projects could be eliminated.

But since drafts of the bill began circulating last month, community leaders have become worried about the details.

Slowing the pace

Brad Wallace, an Essex resident who three years ago led the successful fight against the Senate Bill 509 condemnation-for-revitalization plan, said he's nervous about whether this plan gives developers too much power. He would like more time to hash out the details.

Smith told the Community Conservation Advisory Group that a Jan. 15 public hearing on the bill before the Planning Board isn't set in stone. Wallace and others want it delayed.

"I would suggest [Smith] stop cold and take a deep breath," Wallace said. "Take six months to get community input."

Smith spokesman Damian O'Doherty said the executive is willing to slow the pace of the legislation.

"He does believe that this issue is a top-tier issue, and he wants there to be some urgency, but not at the expense of community input," O'Doherty said.

The usual course for legislation like this is for the county to form an advisory committee of residents, business owners, developers, planning officials and others who study an issue and develop recommendations. Changes to the development process usually go through the Planning Board as well.

`Slap in the face'

Smith assigned members of the Planning Office to craft the legislation. In October, they held two meetings, one with community leaders and the other with developers, at which planners offered a general outline of the idea. Two weeks later, Smith unveiled the proposal in front of the Planning Board.

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