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Does planning matter in Baltimore County?

Natural ResourcesWegmans Food Markets, Inc.Land Resources

With all the recent press over the proposed redevelopment of the Solo Cup site in Owings Mills, the casual reader would think this is an isolated issue that boils down to one community that will see new traffic patterns or new places to shop.

But Solo Cup is just one piece of a conversation that will affect neighborhoods across Baltimore County. A conversation that is expressed in upzoning (to allow more intense development on a property) and downzoning (to allow less). A conservation that is expressed in community desires and developer dollars. A conversation that boils down to one question:

Does planning matter?

The Solo Cup rezoning is one of almost 300 proposed rezonings that the County Council must decide on Aug. 28. These rezonings range from less than 1 acre to 400 acres. They range from technical fixes to massive changes to the vision for an area. They tell a story of political influence, who has power and who does not. Too often, they tell a story far different from the one in the current Master Plan.

Every 10 years, Baltimore County engages in an update to its Master Plan; this was last done in 2010. This plan is the vision that citizens called for, that county planning staff recommended, that economic and environmental analysis supported. This is the process that looks at the cumulative impacts of future growth and ensures that individual developments will come together to make a county with strong rural areas, vibrant urban areas, and the tax base and infrastructure to support all communities across the county. This is the vision that should determine land uses — that should determine zoning.

This is the vision that the Planning Board and the County Council are obligated to support.

But the 300 proposed rezonings paint a different vision for Baltimore County. Several of these are small or technical changes — for example, a homeowner who wants to turn the basement into an official office and work from home. Some of these are changes suggested by a neighborhood to protect open space or community character. Many of them — proposed by a family or a community group, expressing their vision for where they live, or put forward by staff, for instance to protect drinking water or environmentally sensitive lands — would better ensure that the zoning fulfills the vision of the Master Plan. Sadly, almost all of these requests have not been supported through the rezoning process. Instead, too many of the changes that are moving forward are backed by private interests seeking their own vision for an area.

Some of the deviations from the Master Plan are glaring, like the proposed Bird River rezoning in Middle River that would allow the development of nearly 400 new homes in the Critical Area — the state's most environmentally sensitive land — and destroy at least 80 acres of forest.

Other changes seem less obviously harmful but taken together would create a significant alteration to the landscape. The Planning Board supports upzoning hundreds of acres in the North County, an area where millions of dollars have been spent to preserve rural land. Several of the properties proposed for upzoning are in the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed. The county has committed to not increasing development densities in the reservoir watersheds. Like the Master Plan, that commitment is now being ignored.

Some deviations from the plan are harder to spot. Where the Master Plan is a nuanced vision, the Urban-Rural Demarcation Line is a clear strike on a map. It is easy to fall prey to the notion of all developments inside that line are equal. But the Master Plan has a well-developed vision of what should happen inside the Urban-Rural Demarcation Line, and projects that deviate from that vision should go through the public process of changing that vision — adopted with full community involvement in the Master Plan, a small area plan or a planned development review. They should not be determined through the comparatively closed-door process of a rezoning decision.

The Master Plan emphasizes the importance of maintaining zoning for major employment, yet the Planning Board is recommending rezoning more than 300 acres of employment-zoned land for retail or residential use. This includes the Solo Cup site — a retail initiative anchored by a Wegmans supermarket that is one of three major redevelopment projects in Owings Mills — and the former GSA Depot property in Middle River.

Does planning matter? It depends on whether public or private interests should set the vision for Baltimore County. Analysis of the proposed rezonings raises serious questions about the influence that private interests have had on the rezonings put forward for consideration.

Rezoning should not be used to avoid the proper processes and to evade the people's vision. State law clearly states that zoning must comply with the land use plan; this calls into question the legality of many of the rezoning proposals. A project can go through the proper process — with the opportunities for impact studies, community input and open debate — to change the vision for an area. If the project really is right for the neighborhood, that process will only make it a stronger proposal.

Does planning matter?

On Aug. 28, when the County Council votes on the proposed rezonings, its members will have an opportunity to say: Yes, it does.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel (jennifer@friendsofmd.org) is the deputy director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a nonprofit that seeks to engage all Marylanders to achieve vibrant communities and healthy rural economies. More information can be found at http://www.friendsofmd.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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