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."
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.
"That trend has been going on for a while, and I think it's reflected in the policies that are in the Master Plan 2020, with the development of the areas that are designated as Community Enhancement Areas," Mayhew said.
Those areas, known as CEAs, are scattered pockets of the county that are considered "suitable for sustainable redevelopments that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable," according to the 2020 plan, which was adopted by the council Nov. 15.
"The ideal locations for CEAs are sites that exist within, or can extend traditional town centers," the plan states.
Whalen's inconspicuous 2-acre property on Kenwood Avenue is both part of a CEA — one otherwise comprised of land across the Beltway, including more of Whalen's land and the campus of Spring Grove Hospital Center — and within an area the plan designates as an "Urban Center Zone," where development is encouraged.
In other words, the stretch of trees that Gratton never even considered developable has in fact been targeted by county planners as highly attractive for development.
PUDs at play
The trend has troubled many in Catonsville, said 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk.
"Baltimore County's in a transition, so to speak, because the way we do development has substantially changed in the last 20 to 30 years, and a lot of the high density land has been developed inside the URDL," said the first-term councilman.
"And if we have more density, we have to make sure it works with the community," he said. "That's a challenge that I think we're all wrestling with, trying to find the right balance."
Since 2005, PUDs have played an increasingly large role in the transition.
Between 2000 and 2005, there were 12 approved PUDs in the county, with an average size of 39.7 acres, according to data provided by Bruce Seeley, a Master Plan coordinator with the county's office of planning.
Since the start of 2006, there have been 21 approved PUDs with an average size of 20.2 acres. Of that total, seven were approved in 2009, six in 2010 and two so far in 2011.
If you exclude the two largest PUDs since 2006, which are disproportionately larger than the rest, the average size of the remaining 19 projects drops to 10.4 acres.
In Catonsville, three small-scale PUD proposals in particular have highlighted the community tension:
• Whalen's Kenwood Avenue project;
• a project to build an office building on 6 acres of the Catonsville Y's South Rolling Road property;
• a project to build 10 townhouses on just under 2 1/2 half acres of property off Thistle Road just outside Oella on Frederick Road in western Catonsville.
The latter, known as Thistle Landing, has been the most controversial for Quirk.
Approved by his predecessor on the council, Sam Moxley, the project was thrown off course when Quirk prompted the council to rescind its approval in May, calling it a bad project. Then in July, the council voted to reverse that decision, giving the project approval once again while also revising the PUD rules to require community and county agency feedback on PUD plans before they are brought before the council.
Quirk said he was "disappointed" by the council's change of course on Thistle Landing, but that the new rules for PUD review will help identify projects that will facilitate the county's evolving in-fill approach appropriately, while raising red flags on projects that won't.
"If it's done the right way, PUDs can be a very valuable tool. They might help with flexibility," he said. "But these are tough decisions, so analytically I'm trying to make sure I'm making the best decision with the most consideration for everybody."
Whalen said developers also have a responsibility to keep residents informed, especially with PUDs, and has held multiple voluntary community meetings on his project.
But developers can't do it alone, he said.
"There has been a disconnect between the planners and the planning reality and the community," Whalen said. "Everybody says, "Smart growth, yes! Green development, yes!,' until it's in their backyard, and then they say, 'Wait a minute. They're talking about density here.'"
Van Arsdale said she understands residents' concerns, but smart growth – which means working within infrastructure and avoiding sprawl – is "everything," she said.
"Change is difficult, but we want to make sure that the change is done for the best interest for the county as a whole and for the communities in which the development is occurring," she said.