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Balto. Co. Council lowers open-space fees for developers

John A. Olszewski, Sr.Todd HuffDavid MarksKenneth N. OliverTom QuirkVicki Almond

The Baltimore County Council voted Thursday to significantly lower fees developers pay to help the county buy parks and recreational land.

A council resolution lowering the fees — in some categories nearly 90 percent — passed in a 6-1 vote, with Council Chairman Tom Quirk voting against it.

County law requires developers to set aside land for recreation or open space when they build housing developments. But since 2000, the county has allowed developers to pay "waiver fees" instead of preserving land, if the county director of parks and recreation approves. The money helps the county acquire land and improve parks, and a portion also aids NeighborSpace, a nonprofit that buys land for open space in county's urban areas.

Sponsors of the measure noted the fee structure was last adjusted in 2006 and said it was based on land values from better economic times. The fees vary by zoning classifications, and the resolution passed Thursday reduces them by roughly 30 percent to nearly 90 percent.

Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, questioned whether those reductions were too drastic.

"I had some concerns about the way these new calculations were derived," he said after the meeting. "In fairness, I did think that the 2006 rates were too high. But I do think that the new rates may be too low."

The Home Builders Association of Maryland had pushed for the lower fees. Michael Harrison, the association's vice president of government affairs, said fees have been so high that it's more affordable for developers to set aside small parcels to meet the open-space requirement than to pay the fees.

Lower fees would encourage more developers to pay the fee, Harrison said.

"Since the fee-in-lieu was so high, developers would often build one less house and use a portion of the development for dedicated open space — and so it's a small lot in the neighborhood, controlled by the homeowners association," he said. "These small parcels, I don't think they're very useful. They're bare lots."

Under the new rates, a developer of a 13-unit housing development on 10 acres would pay about $23,500, compared to more than $56,600 under the previous fees, according to figures provided by Harrison.

The new rates take effect immediately. They were based on an analysis by the Real Estate Compliance division of the county's Permits, Approvals and Inspections Department.

Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, was the lead sponsor of the resolution. Other sponsors were Todd Huff, a Lutherville Republican, and Democrats Cathy Bevins of Middle River and Kenneth Oliver of Randallstown.

The same members also sponsored a bill with Perry Hall Republican David Marks that will make the county review the fees every two years. The legislation — approved unanimously Thursday — will increase the share of fees that go to NeighborSpace. The group will now get 20 percent of the fees. Previously, it received up to 10 percent, but sometimes got nothing.

Quirk, Marks, Olszewski and Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, also sponsored a resolution requiring the county planning board to devise a formula for calculating the fees by Oct. 1. That proposal also passed unanimously.

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