Larry and Judy Gratton are opposed to the potential development of two acres of woods that sit across Kenwood Avenue from their Kenwood Gardens condominium in Catonsville, where they sat Aug. 26. A view of the trees from their patio was part of the reason they bought the unit in March. (Photo by Phil Grout / September 6, 2011)

It was the view from the outdoor patio that convinced Judy and Larry Gratton to buy the condo on Kenwood Avenue.

"Here's what sold me: I walked out onto the patio, and all you could see are these trees and the blue sky," Judy Gratton said. "I said, 'Larry, let's get it.'"

Gratton and her husband settled on the unit in the Kenwood Gardens Condominiums off Wilkens Avenue in Catonsville on March 17. That night, Judy went to her first community meeting, excited to mingle.

"We thought that would be a great way to meet the new neighbors," she said. "Then I went to the meeting and all this helter skelter was going on."

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As it turned out, the new neighbors were riled about something the Grattons didn't know: that all those trees could soon be gone.

The 2 acres of wooded property just north of Wilkens Avenue, between the Baltimore Beltway and Kenwood Avenue and across the street from the Grattons' patio, are owned by local developer Steve Whalen, of Whalen Properties, who has proposed a planned unit development (PUD) to build an 85,000-square-foot, four-story medical complex on top of a three-story parking garage at the site.

The plans shocked Gratton.

"The people that we bought the place from surely did not tell us that there was a seven-story building going up across the street from us," she said.

"To me, when I look at it, it's just a small strip of trees. I don't think anything of them being able to build anything there unless they go over into the Beltway," she said. "Are we going to build one long, skinny building, is that it? I'm still not sure how they're going to get a building in there. I can't walk that well or else I'd go walk inside those trees and find out how much land is there."

According to Whalen, there is plenty of land, and the project shouldn't come as a complete surprise to anyone. The property has been zoned for offices since the early 1980s, around the same time the condominiums were being built, he said.

He chose the PUD approach because he needs some zoning exceptions to make the project as large as it is, so it can stand out in a way that is positive for Catonsville, he said.

A development disconnect

In many ways, Whalen's project, and Gratton's response to it, are indicative of a larger trend in Baltimore County development and how local residents perceive it.

As large tracts of available land become more scarce within the county's Urban Rural Demarcation Line, or URDL – a border first created in 1967 to contain growth in areas already fitted with sewer and water utilities – developers are increasingly targeting parcels that many residents consider too small, or too intricately contained within existing communities, to build on.

Zoning has become less of an obstacle to developing such properties over the years as the County Council has decreased minimum acreage requirements for PUD proposals, which allow developers to request zoning exceptions for large scale projects on small properties year-around. The council most recently did so in 2005, when it did away with minimum requirements all together.

According to some officials, the PUD process has made the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process that occurs every four years, and began Sept. 1, far less important.

At the same time, county planners, keen on keeping new building within the URDL, are encouraging small-parcel development through planning documents and zoning designations, arguing such in-fill development is smart, green growth – the opposite of sprawl.

According to Andrea Van Arsdale, director of the county's department of planning, the dearth of large, available property within the URDL is a clear factor in planning, especially for older, relatively built-up areas like Catonsville.

"As Baltimore County matures and moves into being (a) more built-out jurisdiction, by that very nature, there are less green field areas to develop," she said. "Generally, now they will be the smaller ones we'll be looking at."

Jeff Mayhew, deputy director of community development in Van Arsdale's department, echoed those thoughts.