For all the Job-like travails residents of Cockeysville and Timonium had to endure last week, from the heavy snows and school closings to power outages and a particularly ill-timed water main break, the one that evoked the most anxiety can be expressed in three letters — P-U-D.
It was a hardship not sent from the heavens but from a Catonsville developer. A PUD or Planned United Development refers to a regulatory mechanism that allows a builder to essentially sidestep the normal zoning process in order to provide innovative development, the parameters of which can be negotiated with local residents.
The original PUDs (the concept dates to the 1950s) were large-scale and usually involved mixed use and higher density developments. They may have involved former industrial sites converted to condominiums and shopping, for instance, with communities delighted to see eyesores turned into assets.
But what's been proposed off Pot Spring Road reflects a more contemporary twist in both scale and design. Developer Jeffrey C. Kirby of J. Kirby Development LLC would like to build 33 upscale townhomes for 55-and-older residents on a 10-acre lot currently zoned for no more than 13 houses.
To say the plan is innovative or even reflects a compelling community benefit would seem to stretch those definitions considerably. Baltimore County may need more senior housing, but one suspects those potential customers who can afford the planned $800,000-plus units have alternatives available to them.
More than 200 people packed a community meeting last week at Warren Elementary School to protest the project. What seemed to distress them as much as the specifics of the development (and the impact on traffic, the environment and the neighborhood) was a worry that the PUD was a backdoor attempt to gain county approval with less than normal scrutiny.
That's not the first time Baltimore County residents have expressed such concerns. Some other pending PUD projects, at a Bowleys Quarters marina and another in a Hunt Valley industrial park, have also proven controversial.
Last year, the county council changed the PUD law to make it less stacked on the side of developers. No longer is the final review given by the county's planning board, an unpaid group of appointees with neither the time nor expertise to closely scrutinize such projects. It now rests with an administrative law judge who is capable of raising issues that might strengthen opponents' case in the courts.
But the County Council — and more specifically, the member representing the neighborhood where a particular PUD project is proposed — remains the primary gatekeeper. Before any PUD moves forward it must first be approved by that single council member (the rest of the council's support is considered pro forma).
That gives the council member a lot of say in the matter with no legal obligation to consult the affected neighbors (although in the Pot Spring case, the newly-elected councilman, Todd Huff, chose to do so, to his credit). Nor do the objections raised in community meetings necessarily translate into regulatory action — although a council member who ignores the voters of his district is subject to the usual peril at the ballot box.
The question is, once a council member starts the approval process going, would the rest of county government ever stand in the way? Historically, most PUD applications are eventually approved — but whether it's because county regulators were too accommodating or the projects were appropriate is in the eye of the beholder.
This much is certain: Last year's reforms have not yet been tested. Until they are (and demonstrate that the concerns of local residents matter more than the financial and political clout of developers), it's reasonable for county residents to be wary of the PUD process that's earned a reputation for providing developers with an easier route to riches.