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Councilman reflects on his first term representing Catonsville, Arbutus

Difficult decisions in the past and plans for future

By Brian Conlin, bconlin@patuxent.com

4:28 PM EST, January 3, 2012

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Though he took office a year ago, it feels like yesterday for Councilman Tom Quirk.

With a hectic schedule like he had last month, it's no wonder the first-term Democrat feels time has flown by as he represents District 1, which includes Arbutus, Catonsville and Lansdowne.

In addition to his responsibilities operating his financial planner's business on Frederick Road, he sandwiched in a 7 a.m. breakfast honoring straight-A students at Catonsville High School, a 3 p.m. tour of the future site of the Kaiser Permanente medical facility in Lansdowne and a 6:30 p.m. ceremony honoring Catonsville High's football team at the high school on Bloomsbury Avenue.

It makes for a long day, something to which Quirk has become accustomed.

And there are no breaks on the weekends as he attends community events around the district.

"County Council is part time. But the reality is that it will take every hour you want to give to it," said Quirk, who is married with two young children. "The time has really flown by, but it has been a really rewarding job."

Each day, Quirk follows three sets of schedules — one each for family, County Council and his business.

He assigns his aides, Pete Kriscumas, Cathy Engers and Margaret Stokes, around the district to learn the needs of the diverse neighborhoods.

"Each of them, literally, comes from the community (they represent)," Quirk said. "That's one of the best things I did, was to hire people who have a true, genuine passion to help their respective areas."

Kriscumas, for example, has roots in the Lansdowne area and that familiarity has helped Quirk, who lives in Catonsville, in a part of the district that had felt overlooked in the past.

Lansdowne resident Betty Cain, who supported Brian Bailey over Quirk in the Democratic primary, said she appreciates Quirk's accessibility and attention to the southern part of the 1st District.

"He's at least recognized the lower half of the community. We sort of were neglected before," Cain said, noting that Quirk and his aides helped at a community clean up in Riverview in September and have volunteered at the twice-monthly free dinners at Lansdowne United Methodist Church.

"He knows what's going on out there in the community," she said

Bailey, a Lansdowne resident, has also noticed how Quirk has reached out to the southern part of the district.

He pointed to the recent closure of a pedestrian tunnel on Hammonds Ferry Road in Lansdowne as an example.

For more than a decade, the tunnel was a source of concern for nearby residents and business owners because of heavy graffiti and illicit activity it attracted to the area.

"I've been impressed with his willingness to reach out to the people and go see their situations and try to help them," Bailey wrote in an email. "Tom and his staff have spent lots of hours … making sure that phone calls are returned, meetings are attended and solutions which he or Baltimore County can offer are promulgated."

Catonsville resident Charles Strouse worked with Quirk in an effort to get more lighting along the 1400 block of Adamsview Road near the fields at Western Hills Park on North Rolling Road in Westview.

"The thing with Tom is, he's right on top of things," said Strouse, who worked on Quirk's campaign. "From what I can see, Tom's meeting with different people, different organizations. He's taking a lot of time."

Maureen Sweeney Smith serves on the board of Catonsville Rails to Trails, a nonprofit that works to make Catonsville more walkable, and said Quirk has given the organization a voice with the county government.

"The county really wasn't on board with our project. It certainly wasn't a priority for them," said Sweeney Smith, who noted creating trails in Catonsville could stimulate healthy living and local businesses. "Tom went in, and he made it a priority."

For several years, Sweeney Smith said, Rails to Trails attempted to work out a lease agreement with the county over a trail that begins near the city-county line and extends through Catonsville and ends at Bill's Music on Frederick Road.

Rails to Trails began leasing the property from the Caton and Loudon Railway Co. in 2006.

Through Quirk's endorsement, the County Council voted to accept a lease agreement in early December that would allow Rails to Trails to develop and maintain the trail for 10 years before turning it over to the county, Sweeney Smith said.

"We're really pleased that Tom went in there to make this a priority," Sweeney Smith said.

Planned Unit Developments

The use of land for walking trails, commercial development or residential housing is one of the major issues a County Council member faces when deciding whether to present the County Council with a PUD (planned unit development).

A PUD permits development in areas not zoned for it, but the proposal must include a superior-quality project with a clear public benefit.

"I think part of my job is to try to balance property rights with community concerns," Quirk said. "What I try to do is to be an independent and objective councilperson, really truly weighing the facts and listening to the community input and agency reports to try to make the best decision for the long term."

Shortly after taking office, Quirk introduced legislation to repeal a PUD introduced by his predecessor, Democrat Sam Moxley, who had represented the 1st District for 16 years before stepping down.

Quirk cited concerns from the county's planning office, Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management for why he opposed the PUD for the construction of 10 townhouses near the intersection of Frederick and Thistle roads.

The council initially supported his attempt to withdraw the PUD, then reversed course and ultimately reinstated its approval.

In October, the Council unanimously passed a bill, of which Quirk was primary sponsor, that altered the conditions on which the council could approve PUD proposals.

Before the bill, the council could approve a PUD proposal only if it showed a community would receive an environmental or land-use benefit, a capital improvement to a nearby county facility or volunteer fire department, new economic development opportunities or new senior or work force housing.

Under the new legislation, the council will no longer consider senior housing a public benefit and will view developments in the county's revitalization areas and donations to NeighborSpace as public benefits.

NeighborSpace is a nonprofit that aims to preserve open space in the county's most developed areas.

In the summer, Quirk declined to submit a PUD proposal for the construction of medical office on the campus of the Catonsville Y on South Rolling Road. He cited the increased traffic that would likely come with the addition of a 60,000-square-foot medical building for his opposition.

Now he faces another decision for the Y property. Quirk must decide whether to submit a PUD proposal that would include an expansion of the facility with a senior housing facility, instead of a medical office, on the campus.

"One thing I hopefully show to the community is that I'm not a rubber stamp for anyone," Quirk said. "Every project gets judged on its merit and everybody gets put through the same process."

 

Mixed response to PUD action

 

John Murphy, a Catonsville resident who supported Rebecca Dongarra in the Democratic primary instead of Quirk, said he has been impressed with what Quirk has done, especially regarding the PUD approval process.

"I think it restored balance to a process that obviously had a lot of problems before that," said Murphy, noting that he particularly supported the motion to make rebuilding in revitalization areas a public benefit.

"He has a very balanced view," Murphy said. "He's trying to make a judgment not so much on the emotions, but on the merits of the case."

Catonsville resident Natalia Leimkuhler, also a Dongarra supporter,

said she would prefer to see development in areas that already have commerce.

"I am not anti-development," Leimkuhler said, noting that development creates jobs. "But it's up to our government, I think, to make sure that development is sensible and doesn't destroy our environment."

 

Goals for 2012

 

In addition to the ongoing efforts battling crime, providing fiscal sustainability, making communities more walkable and revitalizing the neighborhoods inside Interstate 695, land use issues will again dominate Quirk's agenda in 2012.

"Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green, whoever. All I care is, can we work together and help the community?" he said. "That's the only reason that I ran, was to truly try to give back to the area."

Quirk said he has begun working on the Urban Conservation Zone, which would ensure that property acquired through NeighborSpace of Baltimore County is zoned for open space.

"I want to make sure that our zoning really reflects what the land is," Quirk said.

Quirk cautioned that this process is still under way.

"Not every acre of property inside the URDL should be zoned for development. We need to find that balance," Quirk said. "For smart growth to truly work, we need to do a better job of trying to balance open space and pocket parks with development."

In the coming months, Quirk hopes to see significant progress in acquiring the 10 acres of land at the end of Maple Avenue in Catonsville from the city.

Quirk said he hopes to preserve that area as open space.

Another space issue that may rear its head in 2012 is the Promenade, a project envisioned by developer Steve Whalen that would use land now part of the Spring Grove Hospital Center campus to create more than 1.4 million square feet area of retail, hotel, office, recreation and living space.

Opponents have argued the space would undermine Catonsville and Arbutus main streets that are filled with retail stores and restaurants.

Quirk said on Dec. 22 that a study commissioned by the state should come out in the next few weeks.

"At some point, there will be county input, but right now it's still on the state's side," Quirk said.

Before making a decision on the Promenade, Quirk said he would need to see the state's study showing the amount of surplus land available.

"One thing I've been pushing is making sure that we have good recreational space," Quirk said. "So, we'll see."

Quirk hopes the county sees dramatic changes before his term ends three years from now in terms of growth and development.

"What I would love to see before the end of my first term (is for) significant revitalization to continue and our properties are stable if not increasing, our quality of life is strong," Quirk said.