Zoning Variance Term Limit Sought

Spector To Propose Revision Of 'Conditional Use' In A Bill Allowing Live Entertainment

August 10, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Baltimore's zoning board could gain new authority under legislation Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector plans to introduce Monday that supports a controversial live entertainment bill.

Spector's measure would allow the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals to reverse the property-use permission known as "conditional use" that the city currently grants but can never revoke.

"What is given can be taken," Spector said. The bill says that exemptions to underlying zoning rules are not "out there for perpetuity," she said.

The legislation was crafted with the support of City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who is pushing to expand entertainment in bars and restaurants by letting some of them apply for conditional use permits that allow them to offer music or other live acts.

That effort has attracted opposition from communities such as Federal Hill, Canton and Fells Point, whose civic leaders worry that once the bars have the ability to play music, the community won't have any leverage over the bar owners who don't fear losing the permits for any violations and view city fines merely as a cost of doing business.

"I think this is one of the major protections we can give," said Spector, who represents Northwest Baltimore's 5th Councilmanic District.

In addition to letting the city withdraw permission for live entertainment, Spector's bill would allow the city to revoke any other conditional uses that the zoning board or City Council allow. Conditional uses include letting property owners operate gun stores, strip bars, foster homes or fraternity houses - to name a few - in areas where they normally are not permitted.

Generally, the council or the zoning board also requires that certain conditions be met before granting approval for such uses. The city could, for example, limit the number of residents in a frat house or impose limited business hours on gun store operation.

David C. Tanner, executive director of the city's zoning board, called the bill "another tool" that could allow his board to help resolve issues that arise when owners do not keep their promises to communities.

"Just having the threat of your use taken away, even if it takes six months to do, is enough to get the bad actors to see they should comply," Tanner said. Currently, the city can impose a fine and press criminal charges against operators who break the conditional zoning rules, but it cannot outright revoke the conditional use permit.

Spector predicts that there will be some opposition to her bill from property rights groups, which might feel that the city does not have the authority to take away zoning allowances once they are given. She noted that the bill still needs to be reviewed by the city's law department. Other counties in the state allow conditional usages to be revoked, she said.

Peter Prevas, an attorney who represents city bar owners, warned that the bill could shift too much authority to the whim of bureaucrats and politicians. "If you make everything illegal," he said, "then you can pick and choose who you put out of business."

Real estate attorney Richard Rubin said he liked the bill, in principle: "I don't think that anyone would object to something that says if you don't conform to your conditions you lose them."

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