If you were to guess that a resolution with the title "Revoking prior approval of PUD — Thistle Landing" had something to do with revoking the prior approval of a PUD, or planned unit development, called "Thistle Landing," you are, apparently, overqualified to serve on the Baltimore County Council.
Last month, Councilman Tom Quirk, a freshman lawmaker from Catonsville, introduced that resolution on the night of a council meeting, and his colleagues unanimously approved it. Now some of them, including the two most senior members of the council, are saying they didn't realize what they were doing at the time and introduced a new bill, officially to "clarify" the PUD process, but in practice to revoke the revocation.
Last year, Baltimore County voters sent five new members to the council in what promised to be a rebirth for a body that had grown stale and overly chummy from more than a decade with virtually no turnover. But this episode suggests that any hopes of a new era of transparency and responsiveness to the community may be premature. The handling of this process — from the council's initial approval of the PUD to the attempted revocation to the current bid to revoke the revocation — is not something either the council or the people of Baltimore County can be proud of.
A planned unit development is a mechanism under Baltimore County law for the construction of new development that doesn't conform to existing zoning. Most decisions about changes to what can be built on what pieces of property are handled through the council's quadrennial zoning map process, but the PUD allows for greater flexibility to approve projects that are unique and of higher quality and community value than what would be allowed under the traditional rules.
Builders might be granted greater density in a residential project, or they could be allowed to create a mix of uses on a parcel — such as a combination of homes and retail — that wouldn't be possible by the strict boundaries of the zoning map. In exchange, they are supposed to provide community benefits: higher quality architecture or building materials, environmentally friendly design, capital improvements to nearby parks or other public facilities, or greater economic development opportunities, including workforce or senior housing.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. Some PUD projects have met the spirit of the law, but the process is increasingly under attack from activists who see it as a way for well-connected developers to skirt the rules without providing any real benefit for the community.
By most accounts, the proposed development at Thistle Landing meets that description. The developer is Jimmy Coroneos, who has owned Dimitri's International Grille, a Catonsville institution since the 1960s that has served up, according to its website, more than a million beef kabob sandwiches from its Frederick Road location. He has contributed to a variety of Baltimore County politicians over the years (including $1,000 to Mr. Quirk) and is part of the county's well-connected Greek community.
The plan calls for 10 townhouses to be built on a 1.5-acre site abutting Thistle Lane on one side and Dimitri's parking lot on the other. The townhouses' front doors would be mere feet from the Dimitri's lot, which the project engineer tried to pitch during a community meeting as an attractive amenity. It has problems with steep slopes, storm water management and forest buffers. The stated community benefit of the project is workforce housing, which makes little sense since the developer anticipates the townhouses would sell for $300,000-$325,000, well more than many existing townhouses in the area.
The PUD was first proposed in 2010, when the area's councilman, Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, was in his final months of office, having decided not to run for re-election. He introduced a resolution authorizing the consideration of the project as a PUD on Sept. 20, and Mr. Quirk, who was then running for office, started hearing complaints about it from the community. He tried to get Mr. Moxley to hold off on the project until he or his Republican opponent took over in December, but the council approved the matter on Oct. 20. Although the council heard testimony about the development at a work session and had a month to consider it, the matter was effectively decided by Mr. Moxley under the unwritten rule of "councilmanic courtesy" in which members are given almost universal authority to make decisions about developments in their own districts without the interference of their colleagues.
Under the current PUD process, which was adopted in 2005 and revised in 2007, the council's vote is just the first step in the county's review. After that, the developer must put together a more detailed concept plan, submit to analysis by county agencies and ultimately seek the approval of a county hearing officer.