The latest development in Baltimore County's ongoing debate over planned unit developments (PUDs) unfolded Tuesday night with the County Council passing a bill that will put a controversial development in Catonsville back on track, and will revise a PUD process that has come under scrutiny in recent weeks.
The bill, passed by a 6-1 vote, nullifies a previous PUD revocation led by First District Councilman Thomas Quirk (Catonsville and Arbutus), and limits any further revocation of PUD bills by new councilmen to within 60 days after they take office. Even then, only PUD bills passed in their predecessor's last 60 days are up for review.
Quirk was the lone dissenting vote on the bill.
Baltimore County's PUD provision involves a special process whereby certain development projects — which would normally be outside of what zoning laws permit in certain areas — can be approved, provided there is a demonstrated need or value to the community.
Earlier this year, Quirk moved to revoke a PUD presented by his predecessor, former council members S.G. "Sam" Moxley, that would allow for 10 townhouses to be built at a project in Catonsville known as Thistle Landing.
The council, at the time, unanimously supported the revocation, but in the aftermath, Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr., who represents the 7th District, proposed the 60-day provision.
Quirk said he was disappointed by the council's decision, but fully supported an amendment, which he said brought "very positive reform" to the PUD process.
The amendment adds two steps to the process. Before a PUD is presented to the council, the developer must first meet with the community and provide a report to the council. Secondly, a council member must receive comments from county agencies such as the Environmental Protection and Sustainability Department and Department of Public Works so that any concerns about the project are raised before it is presented and voted on.
Quirk said the community input and agency reports before the presentation of the bill could have helped in the Thistle Landing case.
"I wonder if my predecessor, if he'd seen the agency reports, would have introduced it," Quirk said.
"I stand by my revocation because I don't think it had any public benefit," he said, "But through all of this, we're getting a much better PUD law."
Fifth District Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson and Perry Hall, and who co-sponsored the amendment with Quirk, Olszewski and 6th District Council member Cathy Bevins, said the idea of the mandatory community meeting came from last week's council work session.
But the agency reports component didn't come until the weekend, when Quirk, Olszewski, Bevins, and Marks came together and worked out a solution. Marks said Quirk was important to the process of gaining agency input, an aspect of the amendment that will prevent any similar controversies in the future.
"We came out of this with some changes that, in the long term, improve the PUD process," he said.
According to Marks, the amendment makes the process "frontloaded," but allows everyone to be more informed in the process. Olszewski said after the meeting that being more informed of agencies' concerns brings value for everyone involved.
The council and developers will have the benefit of research by government agencies and community involvement before a vote, and the community will now have a voice in the process before it's too late.
"This makes the process transparent, and we wanted to make sure it benefits the community at large," Olszewski said.
However, the new legislation only applies to future PUD projects, meaning the Thistle Landing development is back on course.
"The way I understand it, it's put back to the process," Quirk said. "Now the administrative law judge will have to decide. I'm sure they'll look at the reports and see some concerns I saw. I trust that this process will work."