County Council approves changes to downtown Towson zoning district

Baltimore County Council approves changes to downtown Towson zoning

The Baltimore County Council on Monday night unanimously approved a bill introduced by Councilman David Marks that amends some of the standards for the Downtown Towson Overlay District, a zoning designation the council approved in August that places controls on development in downtown Towson.

Marks, who represents Towson, said he amended the original bill, which he also crafted, at the request of Virginia-based developer AvalonBay Communities, which is redeveloping Towson Circle with a plan to add 371 apartments and retail space. The amendments will allow AvalonBay to agree to let the Towson Circle project — which lies within the overlay district but was proposed before the district was approved — to be subject to the rules that govern the new district, Marks said.

Marks said he also amended the bill so that the $350 million Towson Row development — which also predates passage of the overlay district — can continue under the old zoning code. That project, which broke ground in October of 2015 and would include 1 million square feet of developed space, has been stalled thanks to the discovery of rock beneath its surface that will make building a planned underground parking garage too expensive, according to Arthur Adler, principal of developer Caves Valley Partners.

Adler said last week that Caves Valley Partners is redesigning the project, but that county officials must approve the new plan.

To that end, the amended bill the council passed Monday strikes from the original law a requirement that an existing development plan that had been grandfathered in under the old zoning rules be subject to the new overlay rules if the developer seeks "a material amendment" to that original plan, as the developers of Towson Row now must do.

"Towson Row is an older project," Marks said. "I think it should be judged upon the standards that were in effect when it was processed."

Officials from Caves Valley Partners did not return a request for comment.

The original overlay bill went into effect Aug. 15, a little over two weeks before the County Council approved new countywide zoning maps. At the time, Marks described the new district as one that consolidated the zoning laws that controlled downtown Towson, replacing them with a new set of rules that include a more intensive design review process, including scrutiny by the county's Design Review Panel, which consists of nine architectural and engineering experts appointed by the County Executive with the goal of encouraging design excellence in development projects in designated areas.

Because AvalonBay officials submitted their concept plan for Towson Circle prior to the passage of the new district, the project would have been subject to the zoning standards that existed before the district was created. Under those old zoning rules AvalonBay would have had to seek from county officials several building variances to move the project forward, Marks said.

Marks said that AvalonBay officials agreed to submit a development plan for the project that would be subject to the overlay district rules — and therefore avoid the required variances — if he changed some of its provisions that AvalonBay believed were too difficult to fulfill, such as a requirement that developers prove a project meets national environmental building standards.

On Monday, the council amended the bill to state that developers should provide "preliminary information" regarding design parameters related to environmental standards rather than "substantiate compliance with" such standards.

On Dec. 16, Martin Howle, Senior Vice President of AvalonBay said through a spokesperson that the company will submit a development plan that will be subject to the new standards as part of the ongoing, multi-step process that AvalonBay must follow in order to have county officials give final approval to the Towson Circle plan. Marks said the developer must communicate to officials of the county permitting department that it wishes to move forward under the new standards.

AvalonBay officials declined further comment through a spokesman Tuesday evening.

The council approved several other Marks-proposed amendments to the district, including one requiring that trees removed due to construction be replaced on-site or elsewhere in downtown Towson by the developer. The amended law changes that to "provided a location is available," adding that, if a location isn't available, then the builder must pay a fee to cover the cost of a replacement tree to be planted in downtown Towson, which Marks said would be planted by the county.

The bill also now includes language allowing sidewalk space that is in excess of seven feet from building to curb to be counted as open space. Marks said last week that this amendment is meant to allow wide sidewalks that serve as public gathering areas to count as open space. The original bill included areas such as plazas, public courtyards, pathways, planters, streetscapes, civic spaces or green spaces as downtown open space.

Pamela Wood of The Baltimore Sun contributed to this report.

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