An east-side Baltimore County Council member expects the owners of a sprawling old warplane factory to seek rezoning of their property. A Towson lawyer will try for a third time for new zoning allowing a small office building. North county activists plan to study maps looking for environmentally sensitive areas that might need protection from development.
The time has come to redraw the zoning map of a county that stretches from the Pennsylvania line to the Chesapeake Bay, 612 square miles of suburbia, urban centers, town main streets, farms and waterfront. With property use and values at stake, the process, carried out every four years, will unfold over the next 14 months in public hearings, official review, County Council votes and, finally, new maps to be published in November 2012.
Council members and planning officials say the process is shaping up quietly, perhaps suggesting a less intense cycle than 2008. In that round, the council ultimately decided 579 requests on 14,034 acres, two-thirds of which was in the mostly rural northern county.
"We have not gotten the level of inquiries we normally would have had" at this time, said Jeff Mayhew, deputy director of community development and a 21-year veteran of the Planning Department. He said the slow economy may have something to do with that, but also he said that many zoning issues in the council district with the most land, the northern 3rd District, have been resolved during the past two cycles.
For the public, businesses and community associations, the period for filing zoning requests — and paying fees that range from $125 to $2,325 per request — runs from Sept. 1 through Oct. 14. The Planning Board and planning director have the month of October to file their requests, then members of the County Council can file through the end of November.
Members of the public can submit requests in person at the Planning Department office in Towson, but county officials say the technology for filing applications online has been improved, and they hope more people choose that option. The applicant for rezoning does not have to own the property to ask for rezoning.
None of the seven County Council members reported a noticeable rush of interest in the weeks before the filing period begins. Two members, Tom Quirk of Catonsville and Cathy Bevins of Middle River, wondered if the planned unit development process hasn't to some degree taken the place of rezoning. The PUD process allows the developer to exceed the limits of existing zoning in exchange for some community benefit.
District 3 Councilman Todd Huff, of Lutherville said, "Four years ago at this time they were inundated" with questions about rezoning in his district. Now, he said, "we've had less than a handful of inquiries."
Huff said he figures that so many zoning changes were made in the past two cycles under his predecessor, T. Bryan McIntire, that it's possible there aren't many pressing issues remaining.
McIntire, who served 16 years and lost to Huff in the Republican primary last year, is distinguished for helping to set aside tens of thousands of acres in his district for less intensive development. The move is known as "downzoning," as opposed to "upzoning" for more intense use or greater density that can potentially make land more valuable.
"Yes, I think he probably downzoned more property than any councilman in the country," said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, an organization devoted to preserving open space in a 130-square-mile northwestern section of the county. "I think that was really the mark of his tenure as a councilman."
Indeed, rezoning is where council members wield their greatest power, as their word will almost always prevail on zoning matters in their own districts. Under the practice of "councilmanic courtesy," members tend to back zoning changes their colleagues want in their own districts.
Kirsten Burger, president of the north county Sparks-Glencoe Community Planning Council, said members of her group in the next few weeks will be examining a database of maps and information about natural resources, looking for places where environmentally sensitive land might need protection from development.
"That's the kind of property we've looked at in the past," said Burger, adding that it was too early to say what requests the group might make.
Charles Brooks, a lawyer with an office in a converted home on Bosley Avenue and West Joppa Road in Towson, had no doubt that he'll be asking once more to have the zoning changed for six properties, one of which he owns.
"Absolutely," said Brooks, who tried in vain in 2004 and in 2008 to change the zoning to allow taller buildings, which would allow him to put up an office building about three stories high. There's a 31/2-story building right behind his and he's near busy Bosley Avenue, so he doesn't see why an office building on his property would be out of place.
"It doesn't make any sense to me," said Brooks.
The owners of the enormous depot/warehouse that used to be a World War II bomber factory on 50 acres on Eastern Boulevard in Middle River are also looking for new zoning, said District 6 Councilwoman Bevins, who represents that area.
"That's definitely a property I know they'll be coming in looking for a change," said Bevins, who has met with representatives of the people who bought the property at auction in 2006 for $37.5 million. She said the current zoning — Manufacturing Heavy Industrial Major — would not allow for the sort of mixed use that the owners have discussed.
She said she thought a combination of professional buildings that could bring jobs to the area, perhaps senior housing and a "nice mix of retail" would well suit the spot not far from Interstate 95 and Route 43.
The property, which had been used as a distribution center by the U.S. General Services Administration, "has great potential," she said.