They had to decide whether to restrict large-scale landowners from subdividing and developing tens of thousands of acres in watershed areas.
They weighed whether to grant a community association's request to limit the size of a housing development on a former golf course in Pikesville.
And they considered whether to extend public utilities to a rural tract in Randallstown, where a developer hoped to build about 190 homes.
For the Baltimore County Council members, deciding the 547 rezoning requests that flooded in as part of the quadrennial Comprehensive Zoning Map process was painstaking, exhausting and sometimes trying work. Preceded by countless hours of staff and council work, the two-hour meeting last week - during which council members announced decisions with auctioneerlike speed - belied the time that went into each vote.
"God, it was brutal," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat who helped negotiate covenant agreements between opposing parties on several rezoning requests. "I'm so glad it's over."
When they finished, the council had rezoned tens of thousands of acres. The move buffered streams and ponds that feed residential wells, protected forests and valleys that surround reservoirs and decided the fate of hundreds of development projects as isolated as a single storage facility and as sprawling as million-dollar residential and retail proposals.
County planners have yet to finish tabulating the acreage affected by the council's actions and estimate that it will be another month before overlay maps and summary reports are finished.
The yearlong rezoning exercise unfolds once every four years, allowing county residents and others to seek new zoning for a parcel of land - even if they don't own it. The result, county Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III said, is "everything from the sublime to the ridiculous."
Of all the councilmen, no one had more - or potentially more sweeping - requests to decide than T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican who represents residents in an area that stretches from the rural edges of the county to Pennsylvania.
McIntire rezoned 5,170 acres of privately owned land in the Prettyboy Reservoir Watershed from a resource conservation classification known as RC4 to a new category that he created last month called RC8. While property owners can build an average of one house per 5 acres in the RC4 zone, RC8 allows development on a sliding scale that favors the owners of smaller tracts of farmland - a category that McIntire says has become known as the "farmette."
In the RC8 zone, a property owner can build one house on 10 acres, two on 11 to 30 acres, three on 31 to 50 acres and four on 51 acres or more with an allowance for another house for each additional 50 acres, McIntire said. Someone with 200 acres in the RC8 zone can subdivide into seven lots. In the RC4 zone, the same landowner could have subdivided into about 40 lots.
McIntire's decision to reclassify the Prettyboy watershed land as RC8 cut the potential number of houses that can be built there by 60 percent to 75 percent, Keller estimated.
That was precisely McIntire's goal. "If we're going to continue to drink good water we will have to continue to preserve the watersheds," he said. "Other than what's in the pipeline, there will be very little development in the future in the north county or in the 3rd District."
Councilman Kevin Kamenetz also made zoning changes with an eye on protecting drinking water. The Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat studied about 6,000 acres in the Worthington and Green Spring valleys and carved 300-foot buffers around ponds and streams that feed the well-water system.
He, like other council members, also handled dozens of the routine rezoning requests that surface every four years.
In response to the Smith-Greenspring Association's request to reduce the density allowed on 143 acres of the former Bonnie View Country Club, Kamenetz rezoned the property to allow a developer to build two housing units per acre as opposed to the 3.5 units per acre previously allowed. The community group had asked for even stricter zoning that would have allowed one house per acre.
Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat, decided not to rezone 58 acres west of Deer Park Road, where Iron Horse Properties wanted to build 187 single-family homes and condominiums.
The request, opposed by most community associations in the Liberty Road corridor, would have required moving the "urban-rural demarcation line," Oliver said. The URDL serves as the border between parts of the county served by city water and sewer lines and areas left for wells and septic systems, effectively preventing dense development there.