Proposed changes to Baltimore County's process for planned unit developments don't go far enough, residents argued Tuesday, and accused council members of cozying up to developers.
Developers would be required to review projects with affected residents before plans are submitted to the council for approval under legislation slated for passage next week. The bill would also allow the controversial Thistle Landing project in Catonsville to proceed, reversing an earlier council decision to revoke its approvals.
Planned unit developments, or PUDs, allow builders to depart from the zoning code with council approval, in exchange for some community benefit.
"Here's what this bill and the PUD process means to me," said Joe Gochar, president of the Hilltop/Maple Community Association in Catonsville. "It takes away my right to representation, renders the master plan a meaningless exercise and means the zoning laws don't apply if you have the right influence."
Council members chafed against such accusations, saying the original intent of the law has been misconstrued.
"The legislative intent wasn't to have revocation," said Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr., an Edgemere Democrat. "It was to have ground rules in place where the developer worked through the councilman … and knew the ground rules going in."
Olszewski and Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat, introduced legislation earlier this month that would provide strict controls over amending or revoking PUDs. Their bill would effectively nullify a last-minute resolution sponsored by Catonsville Democrat Tom Quirk in May to revoke approvals for the development, located on the south side of Frederick Road west of Thistle Road — the first time that the council had revoked a PUD. Council members typically do not challenge each other's decisions regarding zoning and development.
Quirk said the 1.45-acre site would not support the project, which had been backed by his predecessor S.G. Samuel Moxley and was approved by the council last fall. County officials also expressed concern about environmental issues.
The council did not grant approval simply as "councilmanic courtesy" to Moxley, said Olszewski, noting that no one — not even Quirk — attended the council meetings last year to express objections.
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said the final decision on proceeding with projects should be made by county officials — not council members. "If a council member has unlimited authority to pull the plug on a development at any time, there is no integrity in that process."
Added Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, in discussing the need for a community meeting earlier in the process, "Overwhelmingly, my constituents think this is an important improvement."
Cathy Wolfson, president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association, said she was disappointed that Thistle Landing would be allowed to proceed.
"It is a glaring shortcoming of the PUD process that the community input is so trivialized," she said.
However, other speakers said the bill restores checks and balances.
"It seems like bad business of the county to give the developer the okay… and six months later, after thousands of dollars spent, [have] the decision reversed," said John Zimmerman, a Catonsville resident. "How can the developer trust the county in the future?"