In the tussle over mega-development projects in Owings Mills, it's about time we had an adult in the room.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who is ordinarily loath to interfere with the County Council's prerogatives when it comes to land use and zoning, is stepping into that role with his promise to veto a piece of legislation that amounted to a massive giveaway to two developers. The bill, passed by the council on Monday, represented legislative sausage making at its worst and could have swamped Owings Mills' already overtaxed infrastructure. The council should take Mr. Kamenetz's rejection of the bill as a prompt to think about development in that community less parochially.
After years of little activity, Owings Mills is suddenly a hot spot for development. The long-stalled Metro Centre project (which includes a community college branch, a library, offices, retail and residences) is finally under way. The owners of the Owings Mills Mall have announced plans for a major redevelopment to turn the structure into an open-air center along the lines of the Hunt Valley Towne Centre. And just a half-mile away, another developer is proposing 400,000 square feet of retail — including a Wegmans supermarket — at the site of the former Solo Cup factory. Some in the community have greeted this flurry of activity with elation, others with concern that it will turn nearby roads into Maryland's largest parking lot.
All this comes as the council is working on its quadrennial comprehensive zoning plan. The use of the word "comprehensive" might suggest that the council considers how all of the rezoning requests it's considering fit with each other, with previous community plans and with other developments that have already been approved. But that's not quite how it has worked out, at least not in Owings Mills.
Council members typically give each other carte blanche to make zoning decisions in their own districts — a tradition known as "councilmanic courtesy" — but the three developments in this case are split among two districts, and the council members who represent them are at odds about how to proceed. Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, whose district includes the mall and Metro Centre, doesn't want the Wegmans development, known as Foundry Row. Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, who represents the proposed Foundry Row site, has not formally endorsed the rezoning request that would be needed for that development, but she has spoken favorably about the project. Their division mirrors the fight between the projects' developers and has led to some fierce political infighting, to the detriment of the community and Baltimore County's development process.
Mr. Oliver has said that councilmanic courtesy should not apply to Wegmans, and we agree with him. The county has invested millions in the Metro Centre development, and the approval of a major project nearby that could affect its success is of countywide interest. But he seems not to have seen things that way when he proposed a major loosening of the rules for Metro Centre itself. He introduced legislation that would have allowed the developer, David S. Brown Enterprises, to make the project much denser and taller, with less parking and less open space. Metro Centre is, as the name implies, a transit-oriented development and as such warrants some flexibility on those standards, but Mr. Oliver's proposal went much too far, particularly by removing opportunities for public input and government review.
The Foundry Row developer, Greenberg Gibbons, appears to have interpreted Mr. Oliver's effort as an act of aggression against its project. If Metro Centre got all that extra density, it could throw off the calculations for adequate public facilities — schools, roads, intersections and the like — and make another major development nearby impossible. The solution? Ms. Almond and Councilwoman Cathy Bevins introduced amendments to Mr. Oliver's bill that exempted any major development within a half-mile of the Metro Centre from those restrictions and others. It's the kind of compromise only a developer would love, but it sailed through the council, 7-0.
Mr. Kamenetz stepped in on Thursday to announce he would veto the bill, his first use of that power as executive. He is absolutely right that it would have run counter to decades of efforts to provide meaningful review and citizen input for development projects and was "bad public policy." The executive's statement was an unusual rebuke for the council, and it should give the members pause. They should take the occasion to step away from those with huge financial interests in the outcome of this fight and think instead about what is the right decision for Owings Mills and the entire county.