Balto. Co. proposal on 'in-law apartments' draws criticism

The Baltimore County Council is set to vote on a bill to clarify the rules for so-called in-law apartments, a measure that has drawn strong opposition from community activists who claim that it could allow neighborhoods to become more densely populated than zoning allows.

The proposal, to be taken up Tuesday evening, puts guidelines in the code for single-family homeowners who want to set up an apartment in their home to accommodate a relative. The county has procedures it has followed for years that allow this, but up to now there's been nothing in zoning law governing these arrangements.

The sponsors say the legislation is needed for families who want to help elderly relatives.

"Baltimore County is getting older," said Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver of Randallstown, one of three council co-sponsors of the legislation, along with Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. of the Dundalk area and Cathy Bevins of Middle River. "There are some elderly people who want to live in their home and have the children live in the home with them. ... A lot of people don't want to move out of their neighborhood."

The bill could potentially resolve a specific problem for a family near Cockeysville, whose right to have a garage with an apartment in it for their adult son was recently struck down by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

Harold H. Burns Jr., president of the Falls Road Community Association, whose organization challenged that garage apartment as a zoning law violation, said he would be satisfied if the bill were amended to allow such apartments to be added in a house only for an elderly or disabled relative.

Without that change, he said, "it's a disaster. ... Think about this: Every single-family residence in the county all of a sudden has the potential of becoming two residences. It's huge," said Burns. "This is a radical departure from county practice which vastly increases the residential density. It's just a mega-bill in lamb's clothing."

Notes prepared by the council staff on the bill counter that argument.

The notes say the measure "codifies" a practice that already exists, defining terms and permit procedures, and setting limits on the size of an "accessory apartment," whether in the main house or in another building, and on who can live in it. The measure defines the extra apartment as a "temporary use" under a permit that would have to be renewed every two years.

The bill would only allow members of immediate family to live in these apartments. If the apartment is in the single-family home, it cannot have separate utility meters. If it's in another building, separate utility meters would be subject to the approval of an administrative law judge.

Opponents have asked how these controls would be enforced, and what would prevent the "temporary" use from becoming permanent.

Michael Pierce, president of North County Preservation, submitted a page of objections to the council, including a suggestion that the bill be changed to only allow such apartments for a disabled person and only within a single-family home, not a separate "accessory" building.

"Since there appears to be no effective way to ensure that an allowed 2nd dwelling unit is removed when the disabled or handicapped person no longer lives in it," Pierce wrote, "there should be no allowance for a 2nd dwelling unit in a separate structure."

Or, as David Kosak, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, put it: "If somebody builds a $30,000 kitchen for their in-laws, they're not going to rip that out when the relative moves out."

Kosak thought a bill like this might make sense for the Towson area, where the presence of Towson University and Goucher College creates demand for small add-on apartments, but he wondered why it was needed for the whole county. And he questioned the need for action now.

The timing could work for J. Gary and Barbara Mueller, who built a garage next to their home near Cockeysville in 2007 and had their son move into it. The Falls Road Community Association and the People's Counsel of Baltimore County challenged their right to do that, and recently won in the Court of Special Appeals.

The court ruled two weeks ago -— after the apartments bill was introduced — that the county Board of Appeals was right when it decided the garage, an "accessory structure," was not allowed to be used as a home. Family members were not available for comment.

The Muellers can still appeal that decision to the Maryland Court of Appeals, but if the ruling stands, the county could order them to take the garage down, said Arnold Jablon, director of the county Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections.

That is, unless the "accessory apartments" legislation passes, Jablon said. In that case, he said, the garage can stay.

"That's correct," said Jablon. "That settles the whole question."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad