Hundreds of people packed into the Baltimore County Council's chambers on Monday to lobby for greater fees to be charged to developers to pay for needed parks projects.
Council members are in the early stages of weighing whether to increase the fees that developers pay when they can't incorporate sufficient green space in their projects. The current fees include rules that have resulted in some projects in Towson — which is booming with redevelopment — to be charged minimal or zero fees for open space.
"We already are in a deficit situation for open space, and the development that's in progress and coming down the road and in the future will just make the situation worse," said Paul Hartman, past president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.
Hartman, who lives in Aigburth Manor, said if the county government collected more money from developers, then land could be bought in Towson for parks and green spaces that would be attractive to current residents as well as the thousands who are expected to move into new developments.
Carol Newill, a primary care physician from the Stoneleigh community, said green spaces are needed for people to follow the advice of their doctors to "get outdoors to green spaces with big trees, to walk, bike, run …People of all ages — children through elderly — need open, green spaces within walking distance of where we live."
The Towson Recreation Council, which has been pushing the issue for months, was represented by dozens of young athletes in jerseys and their parents. The children carried signs with slogans such as "Towson unsafe for bikes & walkers. Why?" Another name-checked some of the council members: "Vicki-Wade-David-Cathy, Don't sell us out."
While the hearing was dominated by Towson residents, council members also heard from residents of Essex, Perry Hall and Parkville who also urged the council to require developers to include more open space or pay greater fees.
No one testified on behalf of builders or developers.
As in most jurisdictions, developers in Baltimore County must include green space — 1,000 square feet per home — in their residential projects. If they can't meet the standard, they can request a waiver and pay a fee instead.
Baltimore County's open space waiver fees vary based on the zoning classification, and there are exemptions that have been in effect for more than a decade that reduce the fees in commercial town center areas, such as downtown Towson, and eliminate the fees for student housing projects.
"The current system is overwrought, not predictable and does not deliver. We need transparency and we need predictability. We need a fair system in which everyone pays or provides open space," said Klaus Philipsen, president of the land preservation group NeighborSpace, which is suggesting a simpler four-tier system with fewer exemptions.
While Councilman David Marks praised the "passionate and polite" testimony in favor of increasing the fees, he noted a political reality: Developers will pay nothing in open space fees if their projects don't get off the ground.
Marks, a Perry Hall Republican who represents Towson, said after the meeting that he plans to propose a bill with new fees this summer. He declined to offer details.
Other council members offered support for making changes to the open space fees.
Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said there's even a crunch for field space in his northern Baltimore County district. He balked when he saw at his desk a copy of a draft resolution — written by the council's lawyer — suggesting no changes in the fees.
"We do need to look at this fee structure and come up with a balance so it will be fair to the developers and provide the recreational space we need," he said.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, has said he supports making no changes to the fees. A report from his planning staff evaluated options for changing the fees but recommended no changes.
The fees were last changed two years ago, when they were reduced significantly to reflect lower property values after the real estate market tanked.
Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, was the lone vote against the 2013 fee reduction and said the council can now make up for that decision.
"In 2013, the county cut the fees dramatically and way too much. It was a mistake," Quirk said in an interview.