Old plans, new rules

Council to vote on expiration date for developers


The Baltimore County Council is to vote Monday on legislation that would give property owners four years to begin building houses after their development plans are approved -- and force those who haven't to start over in the approval process.

The proposal is designed in part to require property owners who seek to build housing under old development plans to comply with current regulations. As open land in the county becomes scarcer, some owners are amending plans -- including some that were approved decades ago -- by carving up their properties into multiple lots and building more houses than were initially approved, officials say.

The problem, as supporters of the bill see it: The amended plans often go through old processes that lack current requirements, such as public hearings. And they are often exempt from current limits on building height, yard size, forest conservation and other development regulations.

Under the new proposal, the clock would start ticking after the issuance of a building permit.

"I want to end the confusion and have everyone play by the same rules and by the latest rules," said County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Planning officials said older plans do come up for amendments from time to time, though they could not say exactly how frequently.

The proposal has drawn praise from community leaders, who say residents would be in better position to track construction in their neighborhoods. Currently, many "infill" projects -- generally defined as homes built in established communities, rather than in rural areas -- are approved without any notices running in local newspapers or on signs posted on the property. Such requirements are part of the current planning process, which was established in 1992.

"It's long overdue," Dick Parsons, a West Towson community activist, said of the bill at a council work session this week.

But one of the bill's opponents, the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said the proposal would infringe on individual property rights.

"When you put on an additional set of criteria, you're taking away my right to do what I was originally told I could do with that property," said Carolyn Cook, the board's deputy executive vice president. She also said the proposal could lengthen the approval process for many projects and create extra expenses passed on to consumers.

One of the most significant aspects of the bill would redefine when a property becomes vested, and thus not subject to subsequent laws or zoning changes. Currently a development plan is considered vested if the owner has obtained a building permit. Under the new proposal, a plan would become vested only after construction began.

The proposal would also require that owners who seek to make changes to vested plans be subject to any current laws on the books. The owner could still apply for exemptions to those rules, planning officials said.

"You're not taking anybody's property rights away from them because you're not saying they couldn't develop the ground," said Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "You've got to develop it at today's standards and today's compatibility, not what they were five years ago, 10 years ago," he said.


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