In Balto. Co., trying to keep out suburbia

Zoning: Two councilmen have proposed reducing the number of homes that can be built in the north.

January 10, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County has always prided itself on having vast expanses of rural land just minutes from its suburban neighborhoods. But for many residents in the north county, the two worlds are getting a little too close for comfort.

Where isolated country houses were once the only things to break up the woods and fields, clusters of colonials are cropping up, sparking worries among longtime residents that they are about to be enveloped by suburbia.

Concerned about the pace of residential growth, two Baltimore County councilmen have proposed zoning changes that could sharply reduce the number of homes that can be built on nearly 10,000 acres in the valleys and farmland of the north county.

In one tract in the Freeland area west of Interstate 83 and north of Gunpowder Falls State Park, Republican T. Bryan McIntire, a longtime advocate of rural land preservation, has proposed changing more than 4,000 acres into a rural conservation zone that allows one house per 25 acres. The alteration could reduce the number of potential houses in the area by more than 2,600.

McIntire and Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat Kevin Kamenetz have filed requests for more restrictive rural zoning on more than 9,000 acres as part of the county's comprehensive rezoning process, according to rezoning documents released by the Planning Department this week. Those requests could prevent 5,000 homes from being built.

The actions by the two council members have received strong support from community associations in the area.

"The houses going in in northern Baltimore County are huge. They're $300, $400, $500,000 homes with five bathrooms and Jacuzzis and all this kind of stuff," said Sterling Leese Jr., president of the Citizens Alliance of Northern Baltimore County. "It just seems to be overcrowding, and I would certainly be pleased with any down-zoning."

Community associations and the Planning Department have proposed down-zoning tens of thousands of acres in the county's rural areas. The council will vote on zoning changes in September. Members are traditionally given the discretion to decide what changes are made in their districts.

Even so, McIntire and Kamenetz warned that the changes they have proposed may not become permanent. Both said they are concerned about overdevelopment in their districts and want a comprehensive study of what zoning is appropriate.

"So much of the land up there has been petitioned by various groups as well as individuals that in order to be fair and treat everyone alike, I wanted to include the remaining parts ... so that whatever I did could be fair and consistent," McIntire said. "It should not be taken that I'm set on down-zoning those properties to any particular category."

The north county area included in McIntire's requests is hilly and wooded. The older, ranch-style country homes scattered throughout the landscape are interrupted by denuded subdivisions of large two-story homes with brick facades and siding on the backs and sides.

The Greenspring Valley area that Kamenetz is examining is rolling country with woods and occasional fields that are farmed. It is also home to some of the most valuable real estate in Baltimore County.

The largest of Kamenetz's proposals is a 3,200-acre tract between Garrison Forest Road on the west and Falls Road on the east, from Greenspring Valley Road in the south to the northern boundary of his district, which is south of Tufton and Shawan roads.

Kamenetz said he believes that zoning in the area has not preserved its rural character. It is best to use the comprehensive zoning process - when all sides are given a say - to affect the pace of development, rather than let residents fight development proposals one by one, he added.

About two-thirds of Baltimore County is rural, meaning that residents rely on wells and septic systems, not public sewers and water. Much of the land in the north county is zoned to allow one house per 50 acres, and the county has one of the most extensive agricultural land preservation programs in the nation.

But some rural zoning is more permissive. David A.C. Carroll, director of the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management, said his agency has long been worried about how continued building will affect water quality, county agriculture and infrastructure in the north county.

"This is an area where we have a great deal of concern," he said.

Dr. Harlon K. Zinn, president of the Velvet Valley/Velvet Ridge Community Association, said the problems in the area Kamenetz has singled out are not large tracts but isolated pockets of development that, together, have created traffic problems, exhausted water supplies and diminished forest buffers.

Dr. Richard McQuaid, president of the Maryland Line Association, said that despite the zoning issues McIntire has raised, he is not hopeful that the council will do enough to slow the pace of development in the north county.

Council members, he said, are always to eager to down-zone the horse farm and mansion country where the influential Valleys Planning Council holds sway but to let developers run loose farther north.

"We're talking about the county's effort to pave over the area up here and cover it with houses," McQuaid said.

"This is the rural area of the county. ... We don't have the rich estates. We have the working farms. We have the middle class, not a bunch of upper-crust rich bankers."

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