Panel rejects growth limits

Balto. Co. Planning Board votes on rezoning issues

`A tough decision to make'

Critics say advisory group is too pro-development

May 24, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's advisory Planning Board has rebuffed efforts to clamp down on development in the county, frustrating some community leaders who were hoping tougher anti-sprawl restrictions would emerge from the comprehensive zoning review now under way.

As part of the once-every-four-years exercise in which any property in the county can be rezoned, the Baltimore County Planning Board has recommended against proposals to cut down on new development in existing neighborhoods and add restrictions on residential development in rural areas.

"The pendulum has swung the other way," said Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat who stepped down as Planning Board chairman two years ago to run for County Council. "They're pro-development instead of being neutral."

Oliver said seven of the board's 15 members have changed since he left.

The board's votes aren't binding. The County Council will have the final say on zoning changes in August. But as the Planning Board is being granted new powers to approve developments, its actions are drawing more scrutiny from Oliver and other members of the council and the community who think the board has taken on a pro-developer bias in recent years.

Eight members are selected by the county executive, and the seven county councilmen each appoint one from their district. Members are unpaid and serve three-year terms.

The board discusses development proposals, helps craft community plans and researches land-use issues for the council. But its heaviest work comes during the Comprehensive Zoning Map process, when members hold long public meetings throughout the county to gather input on rezoning proposals.

Much of the focus in this year's comprehensive rezoning is in the rural north county, where residents, community groups, planning staff, Councilman T. Bryan McIntire and, in some cases, Planning Board members themselves made 36 proposals for more restrictive residential zoning covering tens of thousands of acres.

The Planning Board recommended against all or parts of 33 of them.

Planning Board Vice Chairman Randall P. Cogar said the board decided to tighten the zoning of public property but not privately owned parcels. Recommending the requests to help protect the environment might have been the right thing to do, Cogar said, but the board was worried that more restrictive zoning would hurt landowners' property values.

"It's a tough decision to make," he said. "You don't want to take people's value away from their properties."

County Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III wrote in an e-mail that the planning staff initially favored many of the large requests for more restrictive zoning - known as downzoning.

But, he wrote, some community groups backed off in their support for the requests, and the County Council began discussions to change the requirements of the existing zones to make them stricter. At the same time, Keller said the staff "heard from an unprecedented number of folks who had parcels in the 10-30 acre range, undeveloped, surrounded by already developed property, and were upset."

Wayne C. McGinnis, a north county resident who is McIntire's appointee to the board, said he fought for the downzoning requests with data and testimony showing how development affects water quality and forestation. He brought in studies by conservation groups that found that downzoning does not diminish property values in rural areas, and other studies showing that if rural land is developed, it costs the county more in services than it provides in tax revenue.

Other members of the board didn't want to hear it, he said.

"There was no discussion," McGinnis said. "Many had made up their minds before, and they were not going to vote for any downzoning."

Community groups in suburban neighborhoods found their efforts at downzoning stymied as well.

Concerned about small-scale development of new houses in their historic neighborhoods, the Ruxton/Riderwood/Lake Roland Improvement Association requested stricter zoning for hundreds of acres west of Towson. The board largely recommended against those proposals.

The same happened in Perry Hall, where the Planning Board recommended against a request by the Perry Hall Improvement Association to reduce density in part of the community to one house per acre.

Not everyone sees the recommendations as evidence of bias. John Canoles, president of the Long Green Conservancy, said he supports reducing the density of development, but mass downzoning is too blunt a tool.

"There are people with a lot of training in planning and zoning and a lot of history behind how those regulations were written," Canoles said. "To just come through and wipe away all that work based on the not-in-my-back-yard mentality doesn't seem appropriate."

In several instances, the board voted against recommending more permissive zoning in the north county as well.

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