Details matter in proposed reduction of open space fees [Editorial]

Few would argue that Baltimore County needs more open space or that developers, whose projects tend to diminish open space, should contribute to the creation, preservation or enhancement of the parks, fields and streams that provide us with some breathing room in a more crowded county landscape.

Developer contributions come in two forms — land set aside in development projects or, since 2000, cash in lieu of such donated land. A resolution before the County Council would reduce the amount of cash, called an open space fee, that would be required of developers.

The amount the county collects annually from the fee has ranged from $49,000, in 2012, and $1.1 million, in 2006.

The reason given for the reduction is the general decline in land values since 2006, which is the last time the fee was adjusted. The Home Builders Association of Maryland has been lobbying for the cuts.

In many areas of the county, land values have gone down. A commensurate reduction in open space fees sounds fair. It might even give a lift to land values in some cases.

But the devil, as someone said, is in the details.

By what process is the new fee structure to be calculated? Who would benefit the most or least? How would the money be distributed?

Aside from a discussion at a council work session, the altered fee structure has not had a full public hearing. The calculations behind the changes come from the Real Estate Compliance Division of the county Permits, Approvals and Inspections Department.

The resolution looks likely to pass when it comes to a vote Thursday, May 23. However, amendments that deserve consideration are possible.

One amendment, proposed by Councilman David Marks, would boost the amount of open space fee revenue that goes to NeighborSpace, a nonprofit with the mission of acquiring vacant land and protecting it from development. Currently, NeighborSpace gets 0-10 percent of fees collected. The amendment would boost that to 30 percent.

Another amendment, backed by Marks and Councilman Tom Quirk, would involve the county Planning Board in devising the calculations to structure the fees, thereby improving the transparency of the process.

These amendments are a worthwhile public-interest addition to what is essentially a developer-friendly measure. They should be adopted.

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