Baltimore Co. law changes building-review process

Law allows more community say, faster approval

March 22, 2010|By By Mary Gail Hare | The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County officials have changed the way they review new building proposals, giving the public more say in the decision but also making it easier for developers to win approval.

A law that took effect this month establishes a new vetting process for planned unit developments, projects in which a developer may build more densely than zoning regulations ordinarily would allow in exchange for providing a "community benefit" - a school or a park, for example.

The legislation broadens the definition of community benefit to give developers more options. Now a rating from the U.S. Green Building Council or a donation to a local volunteer fire department might be enough to qualify.

At the same time, the law transfers responsibility for approval from the county's all-volunteer planning board to a professional zoning officer. Some community activists said the new system would give the public more opportunity to weigh in on proposals.

"Before, we had two minutes with the planning board," said Allen Robertson, a board member of the Community Associations Network, which represents more than 140 neighborhood groups. "The hearing officer is experienced, knows about cross-examinations and creates a record that we use on appeal."

The legislation was approved unanimously in January by the County Council.

"We are just fine-tuning PUD regulations based on community input," said Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, its chief sponsor. "We want to make sure the community maintains confidence in the process."

A developer seeking a zoning change still has to make a case to the county planning office, where planners still prepare a report with recommendations. But that report now bypasses the planning board and goes directly to the zoning officer, who takes public comment and makes a recommendation to the County Council. The council will make a final decision.

Kamenetz said the planning board had been "overwhelmed" by the process.

"The technical aspects exceed the abilities of the board's volunteers," he said. "The hearing officer is a lawyer trained in development issues."

Planning board member William Moore said he never felt overwhelmed. While the public now has unlimited time to argue before the zoning officer, Moore said, he is concerned that community groups that are unable to hire legal representation might be "bowled over" in a zoning hearing.

"The planning board offers unique opportunities to act as a mediator responsive to community issues," he said. "I genuinely felt a modification to the board's process would be better. I think now the zoning officer will be inundated with simple issues that will become all-day affairs."

But he acknowledged that most of his colleagues on the 15-member panel are glad to be relieved of the responsibility.

Paul Miller, another planning board member, supports the new law.

"We never rushed through a review, but I always felt our time for discussion was less than fulfilling," he said. "The public will have more opportunities for a fair discussion with the zoning officer."

Robertson described the involvement of the zoning officer and the requirement of a public hearing as "a good first step" but said more changes are needed. "We will continue to push for more restrictions on developers."

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