Council zoning bill seeks to ease neighbors concerns about future of fairgrounds

A zoning bill introduced last week at the County Council is being touted by proponents as a way to ease community concerns about potential future commercial uses at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

"It appears to address a lot of concerns we had," said Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council. "In particular, the bill addresses the possibility of gambling at the fairgrounds with slots or other similar video terminals, which is a good point."

Rockel and other fairgrounds neighbors submitted the property for review as part of Baltimore County's ongoing Comprehensive Zoning Map Process, which allows for the zoning status of properties to be reviewed every four years.

Residents feared that a zoning change in the last CZMP in 2008 made the property susceptible to casinos, hotels and even a sports arena.

Third District County Councilman Todd Huff, who represents Timonium and the northern part of the county, sponsored the bill and said the effort to assuage concerns has been in the works for years.

"It's been a long process," Huff said, "coming up with a concept and an idea to protect the zoning of the fairgrounds so they have the ability to build when they need to and, at the same time, restrict it so they can't have casinos."

Huff's bill would establish a Mercantile Exposition Overlay District in Baltimore County, which would "allow commercial and agricultural activities including expositions, fairs and agricultural related events" on certain lands, according to the bill language.

Video gambling and slots are specifically prohibited in the bill's language, while common fairground activities such as concerts, horse races and trade shows are allowed.

Huff said the bill will "protect the fairgrounds and the community. It looks like a win-win."

During the 2008 CZMP cycle, fairgrounds managers sought to build additional stalls for horse sales operations, but were told the grounds were never zoned to have horse stalls to begin with.

To rectify that, then-Councilman Bryan McIntyre intended to rezone a small portion of the fairgrounds to allow for stables to be built. But instead of the original 15 acres that McIntyre told the GTCC would be rezoned, a miscommunication led to the entire fairgrounds being rezoned.

Having such a large portion of the property being zoned for loosely-defined business purposes concerned the community, so for this year's CZMP, the Timonium citizens group submitted the fairgrounds property to be rezoned to MR-IM, which gives the neighborhood more protection in what would be built there.

The Planning Board's public hearing on the 3rd District CZMP issues is scheduled for March 13, 7 p.m. at Loch Raven High School.

Max Mosner, president and general manager of the Maryland State Fair, said in October that no plans for sale or redevelopment existed for the fairgrounds. For him, an issue that still remains is whether the fairgrounds can only replace existing buildings on its site, not build new ones.

He said Huff's bill "doesn't solve all of our problems, but we're OK with it."

"It's a step in the right direction, for sure," Mosner said. "Hopefully, this cures all of the concerns from the community about what might be here, and if that's the case, that's a real step forward."

Rockel, met with Huff on Monday, but said he's waiting to find out if the overlay would automatically terminate if the property were sold and used for other purposes, or whether any changes would be subject to another CZMP cycle.

Should the bill pass — it's scheduled for council vote April 2 with discussion to take place at a work session March 27 — Huff said he would only be able to apply the new overlay onto the roughly 60 acres that was requested to be rezoned by the GTCC.

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