Builders balk at Smith plan

Balto. County residents sympathetic to requests for developer incentives

Tax breaks, financing aid sought

Proposal would encourage community say in projects

March 07, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

When they set out to review Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s plan to promote the redevelopment of older neighborhoods, some community activists fretted that the executive had crafted a giant giveaway for developers.

A month later, they're worried that the proposal might be an exercise in futility - unless more is done to help those developers.

"If developers don't buy into it, it's a moot point," said Dena Jackson, a community activist and fitness club owner from Randallstown.

She, like many of those on the committee, said she is eager for new development in her part of the county, but she wants it done right.

Encouraging community-friendly redevelopment has been the focus of Smith's term in office, and this plan, designed to give communities meaningful input while providing more flexibility for developers, is his first major legislative initiative.

He introduced the proposal amid much fanfare in November and, after some community groups criticized its provisions, he turned it over to a committee, which completed its meetings last month. Now it goes to the Planning Board and, from there, to the County Council.

Under the proposal, community members would effectively have veto power over projects during intensive planning meetings, known as "charrettes." The incentive for developers would be freedom from traditional zoning requirements and a compressed approval timeline.

But the developers on the committee reviewing the legislation said that was not incentive enough. They said tax breaks, low-interest financing or other inducements would also be necessary.

The charrette process would require front-loading expenses in design work that would be for naught if the community and developer can't come to a consensus during the charrette, they said, and the bill does nothing to resolve the major hurdles of redevelopment work: assembling land and demolishing buildings.

Larry Rosenberg, an Owings Mills developer, said he got a good impression of the community-centric process that Smith's bill envisions when his company built the WaterView housing development in Essex, a traditional-style neighborhood on the site where a crime-ridden apartment complex once stood.

In that case, the county had assembled the land, and his firm merely won the bid to develop it. But in most cases, he said, assembling land in older communities is tremendously difficult - one project his company is considering involves 23 land owners, he said.

Many of the community activists on the 38-member panel said they came around to the developers' point of view.

"I went in there like the other community people, fearing the developers' leverage, but I came to really appreciate their concern about having some finality to the process so that they don't put all their money up front to buy the land and go through the process and have to wait and wait and wait to see what's going to come out," said Daniel Rosen, a committee member from the Academy Heights area of Catonsville.

Rosen lives near Route 40, which he said is in desperate need of redevelopment.

Smith said he would like to offer more incentives for redevelopment - such as tax increment financing, which would enable the county to invest tax dollars in infrastructure improvements to help a development. The money would then be recouped through higher tax revenue.

The county offers tax breaks in revitalization districts and low-cost financing programs.

Many jurisdictions use condemnation to help developers assemble land, but four years after then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger suffered a crushing political defeat over a plan to use that power, condemnation is still a dirty word in Baltimore County.

Smith said he expects that the new process would be used on smaller parcels, such as a dilapidated shopping center, so the land assemblage issue won't be a problem.

The task of reworking the bill to reflect the committee's findings now falls to its chairman, H. Edward Parker Jr., a Smith appointee to the Planning Board who has been a key player in Dundalk's revitalization efforts.

He said he is working on a number of concerns that community groups and lawyers raised about the bill, such as allowing more people a say in determining consensus in a charrette, ensuring timely input throughout the process and making the legislation easier to understand.

He said he is not likely to include developer incentives in the bill because they might have to be tied to the annual budget process. "But there definitely have to be some incentives to induce developers to use this process," he said.

Parker, along with staff from the Planning Department, will prepare a final draft of a bill within the next two weeks for a Planning Board hearing April 15, he said.

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