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Uncertain future for Baltimore County

For the first time in more than a decade, Baltimore County's land use and zoning policies seem to be under serious scrutiny.

The decisions of the County Council over the coming weeks — and how the community responds to those decisions — could result in significant changes in Baltimore County's comprehensive zoning process and even reshape the balance of power among Baltimore County's elected officials.

As a former state delegate and former member of the Baltimore County Planning Board, I know that when communities feel shut out of the political process, their blocked energy needs to be expended in other ways, frequently with negative results for incumbent politicians.

One community group opposing a proposed land rezoning reports having already gathered nearly 10,000 signatures on petitions — about the same number that would be required to be turned in to the Board of Elections within 45 days if this group were to seek to challenge Baltimore County's Comprehensive Zoning Map Process through a voter referendum. Other community groups have their own concerns related to the Master Plan, including the influential environmental organization 1000 Friends of Maryland.

This level of concerted opposition appears to be far greater than anything that I saw in my years as a member of the Planning Board or that I remember as an informed observer of land use in Baltimore County.

Regardless of how one feels about the proposed rezoning of the Solo Cup property in Owings Mills to permit a retail development, the mere possibility of Baltimore County's zoning map being taken to voter referendum raises fascinating questions about the impact on future development projects.

But first, a quick review of the basics, and what's required to take an action of the Baltimore County Council to the voters.

Opponents must file a referendum petition to the Board of Elections within 45 days of enactment. They must ultimately gather petitions representing 10 percent of the number of people who voted in Baltimore County in the most recent gubernatorial election — or 28,826 signatures based on 2010. If a third of those signatures are collected within the initial 45-day deadline, the deadline is extended for 30 more days to collect the rest.

Is such an effort possible? We've seen two actions of the Maryland General Assembly get taken to voter referendum already this year, in part due to technological advances. A group of opponents with enough determination — and enough money to gather signatures — can certainly make it happen. Baltimore County residents showed they could do it in 2000 when they successfully overturned former County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger's neighborhood renewal initiative that would have expanded the county's power of eminent domain (the Senate Bill 509 effort).

So let's say that the decisions made by the Baltimore County Council this week in the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process do, in fact, get successfully challenged through a referendum featuring one or more of seven possible bills (for the seven councilmanic districts). What next?

First, every decision in the successfully targeted council districts could get frozen. Every zoning change, big and small, in the affected districts would have to wait until voters make their decision in November 2014. That could represent a lot of potential development projects stalled across Baltimore County.

History tells us that, when similar zoning questions are put to referendum, voters tend to reject the actions of the elected officials. (See Senate Bill 509.) The ballot initiative essentially becomes a referendum on the incumbent members of the County Council — not the kind of environment in which most of them want to be running for reelection.

If voters were to reject the maps of the CZMP, the newly elected County Council could be forced to start the 2012 CZMP process again after the 2014 election, with a final vote set for sometime in late 2015 or early 2016. Of course, 2016 is when the county's CZMP process is scheduled to start again.

And if opponents of the council's actions are again dissatisfied with the results of the new round of CZMP decisions, there's nothing stopping them from challenging the new maps at the polls again. In fact, a successful effort in 2014 might make it easier to repeat.

The chaos and uncertainty would unquestionably be bad for business in Baltimore County, and bad for development. Ultimately, county officials might need to look to a change in the zoning process through the charter — potentially taking away some of the power from the County Council.

One of the great legacies of former County Executive Jim Smith was his effort to smooth friction in the county over zoning and development issues following the tension and suspicions created through Senate Bill 509. He worked to create a more open, transparent processes — particularly in those cases where community opposition was raising questions about potential zoning decisions.

As Baltimore County's zoning decisions again face similar attacks, it may be time to look back to his efforts and apply the lessons of his success as county executive to the zoning conflicts of today.

Robert E. Latshaw Jr., a former state delegate and former member of the county Planning Board, is chairman of the Baltimore County Economic Development Commission, a private group. His email is reljr@latshaw.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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