City zoning overhaul is approved by planning commission

Legislation, which includes phase-out of some liquor stores, now goes to City Council

March 22, 2013|By Steve Kilar, The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore City Planning Commission approved legislation Thursday that would overhaul Baltimore's zoning code if passed by the City Council.

The legislation, the first comprehensive zoning law to come to the City Council in 40 years, went through several drafts in recent years before it was introduced to the council in October. Even then, it was approved by the commission with dozens of amendments based on public input.

The law is designed to make the city's zoning more comprehensible by including maps, diagrams and charts for quick consultation. It should also hasten project approvals, according to the planning department.

"I'm satisfied with how we handled it. It was a cumbersome process," said Victor Clark Jr., a citizen representative on the commission.

Since last year, the commission has held more than a half-dozen public meetings across the city to collect thoughts from Baltimore residents and businesspeople about the proposed changes. Two of the hearings dealt solely with a controversial portion of the legislation that would force about 100 stores to stop selling alcohol.

Baltimore officials, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot, have said that they think reducing the concentration of liquor outlets will improve residents' health and safety.

The targeted liquor stores, which have been operating since at least the early 1970s, won't have to conform to the residential zoning that surrounds them if the new code passes. As written, the legislation gives them a two-year period to phase out the sale of liquor.

The stores' owners contend that their shops do not cause more crime or poor health. The city is discriminating against them and causing financial hardship, they say. Several store owners attended multiple public hearings and repeatedly voiced their objections to the phaseout.

Only one member of the commission, citizen representative Robert Hopkins, opposed the liquor store reduction. A two-year phaseout period is not long enough for the owners to get their affairs in order, he said.

"A longer period would have a much better chance" of holding up in court, Hopkins said.

The City Council is scheduled to begin its own hearings on the legislation in April.

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