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Zoning board member to depart as longest-serving in city's history

Courtney McKeldin, daughter-in-law of the late Republican governor and Baltimore mayor Theodore McKeldin and a well-known local public servant in her own right, will step down today as the longest-serving member of the city's zoning board.

The longtime north Roland Park resident is married to Theodore McKeldin Jr., a lawyer for the Maryland Attorney General's Office. She was first appointed by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer in 1974 to fill the seat of her father-in-law, who had joined the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals after serving as mayor, governor and then a second term as mayor. Theodore McKeldin stepped down from the zoning board in 1974 and died later that year.

Courtney McKeldin was the first woman to serve on the zoning board and its lone Republican at the time, she said.

She would go on to serve two terms on the board, from 1974-82, and was the first women to be chairman, from 1980-82.

Then, she left the board for 18 years, until 2000, when then-Mayor Martin O'Malley appointed her to fill a vacant seat on the board at the suggestion of then-Gov. Schaefer, she said.

She was reappointed in 2004 and served another two terms. When the second term ended in December 2012, "I thought, 'Really, that's it,' " she said.

But she ended up staying on the board as a holdover for two more years, for a total of 21 years, she said.

That makes her "by far" the longest-serving member of the board, "as best we can tell," said the board's longtime executive director, David Tanner.

The board meets twice a month to hear cases ranging from developers seeking approval for major mixed-use projects to requests by home owners to build additions.

McKeldin said she has sided with the majority of board members in most cases, including approving the Horseshoe Casino, now under construction downtown, which she said she voted for because it offered 1,700 jobs and a percentage of its revenues would go toward boosting area neighborhoods and education funding.

She also voted for Harborplace, which opened in 1980, because, "I saw that as a huge economic engine," she said.

As a zoning board member, McKeldin has usually gone with the flow.

"Nine times out of 10, we will vote unanimously on something," she said.

A vote she regrets

But she has also been a lone voice of dissent on the board.

In 2000, the five-member board voted 4-1 to let the China Room open as an after-hours club downtown, but McKeldin voted no, arguing that Baltimore "is not a 24-hour city" and that other cities that had allowed nightclubs to stay open until dawn were rethinking the policy, according to The Sun.

She also has taken some votes that she now regrets, including to approve Our Daily Bread's previous location on Franklin Street near the Enoch Pratt Central Library.

"It created havoc in that community, with the homeless using the library and standing in line around the block for lunch," McKeldin said. "I didn't regret [the vote] at the time, but looking back, I see all the problems it created."

Our Daily Bread, a Catholic Charities hot meal and employment program, has since moved to Fallsway.

McKeldin, a former medieval and art history teacher and lacrosse coach at the all-girls Garrison Forest School, has also held various fundraising jobs, including at the Ladew Topiary Gardens and the Baltimore International Culinary College.

She also formerly worked for the then-Baltimore Convention Bureau as membership manager.

McKeldin also serves on the boards of nine nonprofits and is former governor of the Society of the Ark and the Dove, whose members, including her, are the descendants of passengers aboard the two 17th-century ships that helped colonize Maryland.

"I'm a Calvert," she said, addintg that she is still active in the society.

But it is the zoning board that defines her most.

Her daughter, Caroline McKeldin Wayner, 47, who lives nearby, said she has vivid memories of playing "elevator tag" at City Hall as a fourth-grader with a friend when her mother brought them along with her to zoning hearings.

"That's how long the zoning board has been a part of her life," Wayner said.

Changing city

McKeldin said that as a longtime zoning commissioner, she has had a unique view of how the city has changed in good economic times and in bad, and how the board and its dockets have changed.

When her father-in-law in his inaugural address for his second term as mayor in 1963 talked grandly about reinventing the Inner Harbor with shops, restaurants and offices, McKeldin had her doubts.

"I thought, 'He's losing it,' " she said.

The rest is history — with Schaefer's subsequent involvement — and the Inner Harbor now includes McKeldin Plaza.

Courtney McKeldin said she has also seen Baltimore change from an industrial to service-oriented city, which has led to a lot of nonconforming use zoning applications by people wanting to open businesses such as hair and nail salons, and restaurants in industrial parks — "things that would never have been approved" when she first came on the board.

She said she has also seen many residents in the city's growing Hispanic community coming to the board with sometimes misguided plans to open day care centers, corner grocery stores and other businesses in residential locations that don't permit such uses.

Many have already spent their life savings to buy the houses where they want to open, without their real estate agents telling them about the zoning restrictions, McKeldin said.

"It breaks your heart," she said.

The board and its dockets have changed too, McKeldin said. When she first came on the board, it met weekly, and its members were expected to personally visit each site for the cases that came before the board, she said.

Tanner said he doesn't remember that being a mandate, but that it might have been an unwritten policy.

"They took us all over town," McKeldin recalled. "I got to know the city pretty well."

The board's dockets have gotten shorter, compared to the 1970s and '80s, when "there was a lot of building going on," McKeldin said. And she said the economy of recent years soured a lot of construction, as the number of building permits filed with the city from 2008-11 "completely fell off," she said.

Tanner said there was a boom in the 1990s, too, as "everyone wanted to have rooftop decks," and that at one time, the board heard more than 1,000 cases a year.

'Time to move on'

Today's board benefits from being less political than it used to be, said McKeldin, who describes her political affiliation as Republican "in name" only.

Also, board meetings are now televised.

"It keeps us on our toes," she said.

A relatively new policy of placing docket items on a consent agenda when there is no expected opposition has streamlined the board's caseload, she said. Tanner said it has actually allowed the board to hear more cases.

What hasn't changed is the board's mission to judge zoning requests on their merits and potential impact on neighborhoods, McKeldin said.

"Zoning is your better judgment," she said. "It's kind of like, let your conscience be your guide."

McKeldin said she is looking forward to comprehensive rezoning, as the city rewrites its zoning code for the first time in four decades.

I'm really happy about it," she said, adding that board members have had "hours of input" with city planners about how to improve the zoning code. "It's going to really modernize the zoning laws. The old (code) is so obsolete. So many restaurants have to come to us now, just if they want tables outside. So many pizza carryouts want to stay open until 4 in the morning."

At a time of great change for zoning in the city, McKeldin is leaving the board.

As a longtime zoning board member making about $8,000 a year, McKeldin is eligible for retirement and said she has put in for it.

"After 21 years, I think you're due a little something," she said.

"We're going to miss her," Tanner said. "She's a good board member, very pragmatic and fair. It's hard to replace people with that kind of dedication."

"It's a little bittersweet," McKeldin said. "It's been a really big part of my life, and it's kept me involved with what was going on with the city.

"I'm sad, but everybody is younger than me. It's time to move on."

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun
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