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Baltimore Co. Council poised to reform development practice

Vote scheduled Tuesday on planned unit developments

By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

5:14 PM EST, February 19, 2012

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The Baltimore County Council is poised make it easier to get information about plans filed under a real estate development method that has been criticized as too easy on builders and too hard on residents trying to keep track of what's going on in their neighborhoods.

A bill before the council would reform the planned unit development (PUD) process, which allows developers to depart from underlying zoning by providing a community benefit to go along with their projects. Members are expected to vote Tuesday to require that preliminary plans be posted on the county website before developers meet with community members and before agencies have begun their first review of the project.

The measure is meant to "make sure we're putting out as much information as possible," said Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat who introduced the bill, which was also sponsored by David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, and Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat.

"I think transparency is always better," Marks said.

"I think one of the most significant accomplishments of this council has been in development," he added, referring to several reforms enacted since last year, when five of the seven members took office.

The latest measure faced no opposition when it was brought up for discussion.

Under the proposed law, plans would appear online

before the developer meets with people in the neighborhood, before county agencies have done their preliminary review, and before the council votes to let the project continue to more detailed examination. The final decision on such developments is made by an administrative law judge.

"This is another step in the right direction," said Allen Robertson, of Bowleys Quarters, an active opponent of the proposed Galloway Creek waterfront condominium PUD, which is due to come before the Board of Appeals on Tuesday.

He said it would help neighbors to see the plans before they meet with the developer, but he said county officials still must be willing to listen to what community members say at these meetings. He said he did not feel that was the case at the community meetings held years ago for Galloway Creek, where he said opposition to the plan was clear.

Alan P. Zukerberg, president of the Pikesville Communities Corporation, called the latest measure "a good first step."

"I think it's a recognition that the constituency doesn't want to tolerate finding things out until later on," he said.

He said that the council deserved "a pat on the back," but that current law still needs work. He said developers should be required to allow five weeks' notice of the community meeting, not three, and should not be entrusted to keep minutes of the meetings.

The council last year revised several aspects of the PUD code, which first appeared in the 1970s as a way to build large projects encompassing an array of uses — residential, commercial and office, for example — on one piece of land. The community benefit required by the law could include a park, senior housing, higher-quality construction materials or environmentally friendly designs.

Before last year, the council would vote on projects just to begin the review, before any plans had been submitted to the community or to county agencies. Critics argued that the council's approval was being given too much weight by agencies, effectively green-lighting projects before they were evaluated.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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