Blue heron

A great blue heron rests on a dock near the marina that would be developed into condominiums. (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum / June 13, 2011)

Behind the asphalt parking lot at Dimitri's International Grille in Catonsville, the wooded area drops about 30 feet in a steep slope in one direction, adjoining Patapsco Valley State Park on two sides. The restaurant's owner wants to build 10 townhouses there, though zoning doesn't allow it and the Baltimore County planning staff has strongly recommended against it.

"How do you develop on land like this?" said County Councilman Tom Quirk, pointing into the woods. He persuaded the council to revoke its approval of the project on Frederick Road, but a fellow lawmaker wants to put it back on track. "This was a mistake in judgment from day one."

The proposed Thistle Landing project is small, but it is part of a larger argument that has been unfolding for years across Baltimore County over the "planned unit development," or PUD. In Catonsville on the west side, in Bowleys Quarters on the east side, and in other county communities, such developments have triggered battles between developers and residents.

Supporters say the flexible approach makes room for projects that suit a community even if zoning doesn't permit them. Critics say the approach gives developers leeway to bypass rules. The County Council has revised the law repeatedly over the years, but that has hardly settled all disputes.

Planned unit developments allow builders to depart from the zoning code with council approval. The developer might want to mix uses that are separated in the zoning, put up more homes than the law allows or build homes in a business zone, as in the case of restaurateur James H. Coroneos' proposed Thistle Landing.

In exchange, the law requires developers to provide a benefit to the community, which could include senior housing, improvements to a neighborhood park, housing for those at a certain income level, or higher quality materials or architectural design.

In the Thistle Landing project, for instance, the suggested benefit would be "workforce housing," meaning homes for people who meet federal income guidelines. At a community input meeting in March, the developers said they would be asking $300,000 to $325,000 for the homes, which to Quirk did not seem to qualify as "workforce housing."

PUDs are rarely proposed — records of the past seven years show they account for only 2 percent of approved projects in Baltimore County — and most have faced little community opposition. Lately, though, they're stirring some.

Quirk, who represents District 1, was at the Thistle Landing site recently pointing out the features of the land and explaining why he took the unusual step of revoking the previous councilman's endorsement of the townhouse venture, without which it cannot be approved. Now he's being opposed by Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. of District 7, a fellow Democrat who took the equally unusual step of introducing a measure to bring the project back.

The Quirk-Olszewski legislative duel comes weeks after Councilman Todd Huff, a District 3 Republican, decided to nip a small PUD in the bud.

Huff held two community meetings four months apart before the proposal for 33 houses on Pot Spring Road near Timonium for people 55 and older was even voted on by the council. Under PUD rules, he was not technically required to do that.

Hearing nearly unanimous disapproval, Huff decided not to submit the project for a council vote. That leaves the developer to work within the limits of the existing zoning, which allows about one-third of the houses he had in mind.

Paul Apostolo, one of the leaders of the Pot Spring opposition, said the group was eager to have the project stopped essentially before it got started. He said the group was concerned that while council approval only begins months of review by county agencies, that endorsement would carry the project.

"We knew that the introduction and initial approval of a PUD would stamp the imprimatur of the County Council on the project and that a later rejection would be unheard of," Apostolo said in an email.

High approval rate

A check of county files shows that of 99 PUD projects on record, none has ever been denied outright, although one on the southeastern waterfront has come close.

That is the Galloway Creek case, now before an administrative law judge as it continues a slog through county agencies and courtrooms that started in 2007. The argument over the condominium proposal split the Bowleys Quarters community, sparking formation of an opposition neighborhood association that contends that the PUD could open the floodgates to hundreds more homes than the area can handle. Others argue that it's just what the neighborhood needs.

The developer, Milton Rehbein, has offered a community benefit in the form of a $250,000 gift to the Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Company.

Roughly 70 projects have been completely or partially built under these rules across the central, most developed part of the county since the late 1980s. They range in scale from the sprawling Mays Chapel North project in Lutherville-Timonium — 1,866 housing units and a commercial center completed in 11 separate PUDs — to the modest 12-unit Satyr Hill Manor near Parkville.