Jane Willeboordse casts an eye at Dundalk's old, vacant Seagrams distillery and sees airy loft apartments. At the old Frankfort distillery down the road, she sees space for business startups, or maybe offices.
Neither site is zoned for any of those uses - a potential roadblock to redevelopment. But under legislation likely to pass the Baltimore County Council tonight, both could be developed under a program that would throw out the traditional zoning and review process for selected projects in specified older neighborhoods.
The idea: Create a blank slate for a piece of property, then put developers, government officials and residents in a room together to pitch ideas, hash out their differences and come up with a plan they can agree on. By law, what the group says goes.
Dundalk's community leaders, who heard ideas for rehabbing the distilleries during a review by an urban design team, are willing to play the guinea pig, said Willeboordse, the executive director of the Dundalk Renaissance Corp.
"It's going to take a really energetic and open-minded developer - a pioneer - to be able to make the process work the first time and show it's not so scary," she said, adding: "What this is, it's a new era for the county."
The model is not without its skeptics, who say they worry that the process would favor developers over residents or that it fails to address real world obstacles to revitalization, including the extra costs of creating something new on old sites.
But backers say they believe the plan will simplify and quicken the development process while ensuring that residents have a say in what gets built in their communities. County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who has made it his signature legislative proposal, said he believes it will help foster redevelopment of the county's more urban, aging districts.
"I'm excited for Baltimore County, that we're close to securing what I think will be an important tool to promote our renaissance," he said.
When and how the program would be used and how attractive it might be to developers remain open questions. Two land-use lawyers say they have clients interested in the concept but declined to name them or the projects, and Willeboordse said a developer has expressed interest in using the process for one of the distilleries. Most council members said they have yet to be approached by developers or their representatives about potential projects.
But Baltimore County's efforts to replace through legislation the often contentious development process with one that is designed to be more collaborative are likely to be closely watched, said Bill Lennertz, executive director of the nonprofit National Charrette Institute.
The county's effort to codify the idea of a charrette, a series of public workshops used to create development plans, is on the "cutting edge," said Lennertz, whose organization has trained Baltimore County officials.
"Everyone who's interested in this will be looking at Baltimore County's ordinance and performance," he said.
Under the legislation, for example, land tagged for residential use could be used for offices or shops or a combination of all of the above so long as the community buys into the project. The bill requires a "consensus" - defined as at least 80 percent of community members who participate in the charrette.
"It's the ultimate in public participation," said Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, the county's planning director.
Baltimore County's legislation has been parsed, debated and rewritten since Smith introduced it in November 2003. Revitalization of the county's older areas had been a platform of his 2002 campaign for the executive's seat, and Smith translated the concept into his first major legislative proposal.
But it quickly ran into opposition from community members who initially said they were concerned that the government would be giving too much away to developers. Later, some said they worried there would be too few incentives to encourage developers to take part.
What made its way to the council was a modified proposal that, for example, defined more precisely how a consensus would be reached and placed some limits on the types of projects that could be built. The council, which serves as the county's zoning authority, is also looking at amendments that would give members a greater say in the process.
Some community activists say they remain distrustful, wondering whether developers will find ways to pack the charrette with sympathizers and skew the result.
"It could give a developer a go-ahead he otherwise couldn't get under the guise of redevelopment," said Alan Zukerberg, the president of the Pikesville Communities Corp.
The plan appears geared toward larger projects, leaving out the small-business man, said Donna Spicer, executive director of the Loch Raven Business Association and the Loch Raven Community Council. Still, it provides a perk for communities - resident involvement in the look of a project, she said.