More of the same from the Baltimore County Council

If you were to guess that a resolution with the title "Revoking prior approval of PUD — Thistle Landing" had something to do with revoking the prior approval of a PUD, or planned unit development, called "Thistle Landing," you are, apparently, overqualified to serve on the Baltimore County Council.

Last month, Councilman Tom Quirk, a freshman lawmaker from Catonsville, introduced that resolution on the night of a council meeting, and his colleagues unanimously approved it. Now some of them, including the two most senior members of the council, are saying they didn't realize what they were doing at the time and introduced a new bill, officially to "clarify" the PUD process, but in practice to revoke the revocation.

Last year, Baltimore County voters sent five new members to the council in what promised to be a rebirth for a body that had grown stale and overly chummy from more than a decade with virtually no turnover. But this episode suggests that any hopes of a new era of transparency and responsiveness to the community may be premature. The handling of this process — from the council's initial approval of the PUD to the attempted revocation to the current bid to revoke the revocation — is not something either the council or the people of Baltimore County can be proud of.

A planned unit development is a mechanism under Baltimore County law for the construction of new development that doesn't conform to existing zoning. Most decisions about changes to what can be built on what pieces of property are handled through the council's quadrennial zoning map process, but the PUD allows for greater flexibility to approve projects that are unique and of higher quality and community value than what would be allowed under the traditional rules.

Builders might be granted greater density in a residential project, or they could be allowed to create a mix of uses on a parcel — such as a combination of homes and retail — that wouldn't be possible by the strict boundaries of the zoning map. In exchange, they are supposed to provide community benefits: higher quality architecture or building materials, environmentally friendly design, capital improvements to nearby parks or other public facilities, or greater economic development opportunities, including workforce or senior housing.

At least, that's how it's supposed to work. Some PUD projects have met the spirit of the law, but the process is increasingly under attack from activists who see it as a way for well-connected developers to skirt the rules without providing any real benefit for the community.

By most accounts, the proposed development at Thistle Landing meets that description. The developer is Jimmy Coroneos, who has owned Dimitri's International Grille, a Catonsville institution since the 1960s that has served up, according to its website, more than a million beef kabob sandwiches from its Frederick Road location. He has contributed to a variety of Baltimore County politicians over the years (including $1,000 to Mr. Quirk) and is part of the county's well-connected Greek community.

The plan calls for 10 townhouses to be built on a 1.5-acre site abutting Thistle Lane on one side and Dimitri's parking lot on the other. The townhouses' front doors would be mere feet from the Dimitri's lot, which the project engineer tried to pitch during a community meeting as an attractive amenity. It has problems with steep slopes, storm water management and forest buffers. The stated community benefit of the project is workforce housing, which makes little sense since the developer anticipates the townhouses would sell for $300,000-$325,000, well more than many existing townhouses in the area.

The PUD was first proposed in 2010, when the area's councilman, Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, was in his final months of office, having decided not to run for re-election. He introduced a resolution authorizing the consideration of the project as a PUD on Sept. 20, and Mr. Quirk, who was then running for office, started hearing complaints about it from the community. He tried to get Mr. Moxley to hold off on the project until he or his Republican opponent took over in December, but the council approved the matter on Oct. 20. Although the council heard testimony about the development at a work session and had a month to consider it, the matter was effectively decided by Mr. Moxley under the unwritten rule of "councilmanic courtesy" in which members are given almost universal authority to make decisions about developments in their own districts without the interference of their colleagues.

Under the current PUD process, which was adopted in 2005 and revised in 2007, the council's vote is just the first step in the county's review. After that, the developer must put together a more detailed concept plan, submit to analysis by county agencies and ultimately seek the approval of a county hearing officer.

Here's what the county planning department has to say about the current plan: "As presented, the PUD proposal is lacking in substantial information to justify how the development demonstrates the higher standards of architecture, building materials and site design and/or meets a public policy objective." The site design "is not of a quality that is harmonious with or complements sound planning principles for reasonable and practical development." The analysis concludes: "The lack of common open space or amenity space for the residents that will occupy this community as well as its frontage onto a large restaurant parking lot are other factors that reduce the justification as a quality residential development."

At a community meeting held on March 30, 78 residents showed up to discuss the project. According to the minutes, the crowd was mostly, though not universally, opposed to the project, with people questioning how it would fit in with surrounding homes and open space, what its effect would be on traffic, and who would want to buy such houses in the first place. Some noted, however, that townhouses would be better than some of the things the underlying zoning would allow the owner to build on the site, such as an office building.

After he took office in December, Mr. Quirk met with the developer and expressed his misgivings about the project and asked for alternatives. He says he got no response. So on May 2, as the council members were headed out to dinner together before their meeting that night, he told them that he planned to introduce a resolution that night revoking the project's approval for consideration as a PUD. A few hours later, the council voted 7-0 for the resolution, in what appears to be the first-ever instance of a Baltimore County PUD being revoked.

Introducing a resolution to do something unprecedented and asking for a vote on the same night isn't the right way to do business. But in fairness to Mr. Quirk, any of his colleagues could have raised that objection at the time, and they didn't. And further in Mr. Quirk's defense, if he had given the council more time to think about it, what happened next would have simply occurred before the revocation vote.

Last week, Council Chairman John A. Olszewski and Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, the two veteran members of the council, introduced a bill specifying the circumstances under which a new councilman can review, amend or revoke a PUD resolution approved at the end of his predecessor's term.

Mr. Olszewski now says he should have known better than to vote for Mr. Quirk's resolution in the first place but has no explanation for why he didn't. He says he introduced the legislation to maintain the "integrity of the PUD process," but the bill does more: it would also "render null and void any prior resolution purporting to revoke approval for the review of a Planned Unit Development." That is, it would put the Thistle Landing PUD back on track, despite the objections of the councilman who represents the area.

Whether it was purely a concern for process or something more that caused Messrs. Olszewski and Oliver to change their minds, it is certainly clear that Mr. Quirk's actions are upsetting to county developers and development attorneys, of which the Dimitri's project has the best — a group from Venable's Towson office, including Robert Hoffman, who is among the most respected and effective development lawyers in Towson.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has stayed out of the debate, but his administration has strong ties to Venable, including Arnold Jablon, who worked closely with the council in a variety of development-related government jobs, spent several years at the firm, and has now returned to head the county's new Office of Permits, Approvals and Inspections. Mr. Moxley is also still around — he is Mr. Kamenetz's assistant county attorney with responsibility for government affairs, including communication with the council.

The concern by developers about Mr. Quirk's effort is not without merit. It is reasonable for them to expect that the county's PUD process would provide some degree of certainty and that a councilman not be able to pull the rug from under them at any time. But if Messrs. Olszewski and Oliver intend for their bill to be anything more than a gussied up smokescreen for their desire to undo their previous vote, they need to consider more than the once-in-a-blue-moon circumstances of a dispute between outgoing and incoming councilmen and instead look at the elements of this case that point to broader problems with the PUD process.

PUDs offer a political dream for councilmen. They are the gatekeepers who get to decide, based on little in the way of objective criteria, who gets to enter the PUD lottery. But all the substantive questions about whether a development is of high quality and fits in the community are made by bureaucrats and an unelected hearing officer. It gives them control without the burden of accountability.

If the county is to revisit the PUD process, rather than establishing time limits on an action like Mr. Quirk's, it should consider whether the councilman's role comes at the right time. Placing it later in the process eliminates the potentially corrupting influence of a politician having sole discretion over whether a developer gets considered for a PUD and could allow for an elected official to weigh in after the county has conducted expert analysis and held a community meeting. That would be a reform befitting a new, fresh-thinking County Council.

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