County Council to consider time limit for revoking planned unit development

The Baltimore County Council revoked plans for a Catonsville townhouse development in May, but the project could be in the works again after the council chairman introduced a bill to invalidate that decision.

A bill introduced June 6 by Councilman John Olszewski, who represents the 7th District that includes Dundalk, would reinstate approval for a planned unit development (PUD) for a project that would include 10 townhouses near the intersection of Frederick and Thistle roads.

The bill would also establish time limits on when a PUD could be revoked in the future.

"To me, it's not about the PUD, it's about the process," Olszewski said June 10. "I'm just trying to restore the integrity of the process."

When the council unanimously decided to revoke its prior approval of the PUD on May 2, it was the first time in council history that council members had terminated a project after voting to allow it to go through the development process.

In October, 2010, the council approved a plan that would allow property owner James Dimitri Coroneos to build Thistle Landing, five duplexes on 1.45 acres of a 2.5-acre plot adjacent to Patapsco Valley State Park and Dimitri's International Grill at 2205 Frederick Road.

Following a review process by county agencies, the PUD was slated to go before a hearing officer for final approval.

Residents opposed to that project would have had 30 days to appeal that decision if the townhouses were approved.

When he introduced legislation to repeal the PUD, Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents the 1st District that includes Catonsville and Arbutus, said he "saw a lot of serious concerns" in reports from the county planning office and the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

The PUD was originally introduced by former 1st District Councilman Sam Moxley, who served on the council for 16 years prior to his December 2010 retirement and is now assistant county attorney.

County spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said June 13 that Moxley declined to comment out of respect for Quirk and because of his new role with the county.

Quirk said last week that a "trade-off" of the PUD process is that in allowing development to be built in an area not zoned for it, the proposal must include a superior-quality project with a clear public benefit.

"Neither of which Thistle Landing did," Quirk said.

Quirk said allowing a project such as Thistle Landing to go forward would hurt high-quality projects that are beneficial to the community.

"The best way to protect the integrity of the process is not to introduce PUD resolutions that demonstrate no public benefit and inferior development," Quirk said. "My opinion was that this was a mistake."

Olszewski said his goal is to clarify the revocation process and establish when a council member can take back a PUD.

When the PUD process was developed in 2005, the option for revocation was included, then later taken out, he said.

Under Olszewski's legislation, if a project was introduced within a 60-day period before a new council member is sworn in, then the incoming councilman would have 60 days after the swearing-in ceremony to revoke the PUD.

Olszewski said that when Quirk introduced legislation revoking the PUD in May and asked his fellow members to vote on it that night, he "caught us all off guard."

When a PUD is revoked, a council member should first introduce it, then allow the other members of the council to consider it and hold a public meeting before making a decision, he said.

Quirk said he introduced legislation revoking the project before the May 2 Council meeting because he wanted council members to respect "councilmanic courtesy," in which council members defer to their colleagues on land use issues in their districts, and "because I wanted to avoid outside politics in what should be a strictly merit-based decision.

"We need to be very careful with stepping in other people's districts," said Quirk, who said each representative has the most knowledge about the needs and projects in their local area.

"And they're also held directly responsible by the voters," he said.

Quirk said he believes the proposed time limits will be detrimental to the PUD process and that a new council member should have at least 180 days to revoke a project.

"That gives plenty of time for a new council member to get up and running," he said. "Plus, you also want to give the developer time to negotiate or see if there's a reasonable solution."

Quirk said Olszewski's bill "further erodes public confidence in PUDs" and said that if the council wants to increase the integrity of the developmental process, it should be reworked so that departmental reports and community input are available before, rather than after, the council gives its approval.

"Only under these circumstances can the council person make an informed decision about the integrity of a project and allow the process to run its course with the confidence that the product will meet a common standard of excellence," he said.

Among his concerns about the project, Quirk cited its location next to environmentally sensitive parkland and a lack of sidewalks and open space in the area.

"This is not an area where people can live, walk, shop and play," he said.

The homes are being built next to a parking lot in an area that has "serious stormwater issues," steep slope topography and is close to the urban rural demarcation line (URDL).

Quirk said he is also concerned by the intersection of Frederick and Thistle Road.

"It's one of the most dangerous turns in all of my district," he said.

At a March 30 community input meeting, Coroneos said his intention was to beautify the land his family has owned for 50 years.

Coroneos could not be reached for comment last week because he out of the country.

A group of about 90 people who attended the community meeting gave mixed reactions about the proposal.

Catonsville resident Paul Schafer, who favors the project, said he would like to see council members reinstate the PUD.

"I thought it was a great opportunity for us to add some new blood to the community," he said.

"I wouldn't want to see a strip mall or something put in there," he said. "I wouldn't want to see it developed the way it was initially zoned. I don't think that would add a lot to the community."

The property is zoned "business major," which would allow for large-scale commercial development, according to the county's website.

Though he does not oppose council member's revoking PUDs, Schafer said he would have liked an additional community meeting to be scheduled prior to that decision.

"He (council member) shouldn't just do that on his own," he said. "The whole community should have the opportunity to speak about that."

Art Jacoby, who lives directly across from the proposed development on Frederick Road, shared Quirk's concerns about environmental issues and the safety of additional vehicles using an already tight intersection

The residences would face a parking lot where there currently are a couple dozen parking pylons, he said.

"I really question the ability of the property owner to sell or rent those units given the view of the parking lot and the pylons," he said.

"I am hoping that they will not build residential units there," he said.

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