As Towson booms with multimillion-dollar building projects and revitalization efforts in older areas, residents say something is missing: open space.
Amid the wave of retail, restaurants, housing and offices, residents say green space, parkland and fields in Towson are growing scarce — and they worry the county's desire to make its seat a vibrant urban center is further de-emphasizing open space for families.
"You can't just put up concrete everywhere," said Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations.
Most jurisdictions, including Baltimore County, require developers to include a certain amount of open space — parks, playgrounds, fields — within their projects. But Baltimore County allows developers to pay a waiver fee instead of providing that space. The county is required to spend the money on open space elsewhere.
But in the heart of Towson, an area designated for growth, those fees are often minimal or nothing at all. As a result, residents say, the community lacks green spaces, and isn't getting sufficient money to buy new parks or improve existing ones.
Officials at the Towson Recreational Council, which serves some 6,500 children in 35 programs, say they spend $50,000 annually to rent field space — often at private schools — because there aren't enough fields in Towson to go around.
"We have to beg, borrow and steal," President Janine Schofield said. "I'll be honest: We're desperate."
The rec council and Ertel's group are lobbying the county to change the open space waiver fee system. More than 200 people — including dozens of children in their recreation uniforms and gear — packed a county Planning Board meeting last week to express frustration over the lack of open space.
"It's unbelievable we had to do this," resident Scott Rykiel said.
Rykiel, a landscape architect, said he's worked on scores of urban open space projects. He said developers generally know the cost of doing business involves paying for or providing open space.
Downtown Towson is home to several major projects, including the 1 million-square-foot mixed-use Towson Row project on York Road; 101 York, a 600-student housing project on York Road; a 105-apartment proposal for 703 Washington Ave.; and Towson Mews, a 35-apartment complex at Jefferson and Washington avenues.
If those four projects were located elsewhere in the county, Ertel said, the developers would be required to pay about $5.6 million combined in open space waiver fees. But in Towson, he said, they could yield as little as $110,000.
The county has treated Towson differently since 2000, when County Council members agreed to limit open space fees in the "town center core" along York Road. They eliminated open space fees entirely for student housing projects.
The council approved those measures before the current surge of interest in residential development in downtown Towson. Some residents say the time is right to revisit the rules.
The county Planning Board is reviewing the county's overall fee structure, and will make recommendations to the County Council.
"I think people see it as a crossroads that something has to be done now," said Ertel.
Some officials seem to agree. An administrative judge reviewing the 101 York project ruled last month that the 2000 resolution was no longer valid, and ordered developer DMS Development to pay more than $1.3 million in open space fees.
DMS has appealed and requested another hearing. The developer says the open space waiver fee issue was never discussed during the judge's hearing on the project.
It is unclear whether the county will change the open space fees for Towson — or anywhere in the county. In a report, the Department of Planning staff calls for keeping the fees as they are now. The board could vote in April.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz wants the fees left as they are, spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said. But she said Kamenetz also recognizes "land use is the purview of the County Council."
Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, thinks there's interest on the council to make changes, especially in Towson.
"We're not going to leave the fees at zero," said Marks. He declined to specify what he might propose.
Marks said he's heard from constituents about the lack of parks in Towson and the need to charge larger open space fees. He said he's heard plenty of ideas for how more open space fee money could be spent in Towson: urban pocket parks, playgrounds, trails, sports fields.
But Marks said the council must balance the desire for more open space money with developers' ability to pay. He said he doesn't want to set fees so high that it scares off developers who want to revitalize Towson.
"Then you don't get the project or the open space fees," he said.
Rich Josephson, director of planning services with the Maryland Department of Planning, said space is an important component of all development, including high-density projects such as those proposed in Towson.
While the state has no oversight over the open space requirements in cities and counties, he said, the department encourages smart use of green spaces.
"From an urban design perspective, it's good planning to have open space in development plans or redevelopment plans," he said. "The challenge in areas that are already developed and are being redeveloped is sometimes it is difficult to find room to provide open space."
Urban areas designed to attract young professionals or empty nesters might not generate a demand for sports fields that would be sought by families in more traditional subdivisions, Josephson said. But urban dwellers still seek out passive parks and plazas, as well as connections to fields and trails that can be reached by walking or biking.
"Open space is a key element of any good, well-designed mixed-use project, and I would think most developers would want open space because it enhances the quality and value of the development," he said.
Matthew Bell, an architect and professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said successful urban developments include a "sense of place" — and part of that is open spaces.
When it comes to open space requirements, Bell said, urban areas should be treated differently from suburban areas. While ball fields and big parks make sense in the suburbs, he said, smartly designed small open spaces work better in urban areas.
"There are lots of different kinds of open space," he said. "They're not all the same, and the minute you start applying formulas to them, you run the risk of treating them all the same."
Some developers want to see change in Baltimore County's open space rules as well.
Josh Greenfeld, vice president of the Maryland Building Industry Association, told the Planning Board last week that the department's report was flawed. He said the county hasn't identified its needs for new parks and open spaces — or figured out how much money is needed to make them a reality.
The building industry wants the county to update the design manual that developers must follow when incorporating open space into their projects. The manual hasn't been updated in two decades. Greenfield said the rules need to have more flexibility to allow developers to include "better, more usable open space" in their projects.
He recommended scrapping the current system of open space waiver fees based on zoning districts — which can run from 22 cents per square foot in rural zones to $5.74 in high-density zones — and replacing it with flat fee countywide.
"It is predictable, transparent and justifiable," he said.