After years of discussion over everything from typos to the definition of a family, some developers and community groups have begun pressuring the City Council to finally bring the first major rewrite of the city's zoning code in decades to a vote.
First introduced to the City Council in 2012, the bill would be the city's first new zoning law since 1971, when the city remained home to large industries, a distinct commercial core and thriving neighborhoods. It was designed to ease Baltimore's growth in a new century and new economy, clarifying the development process and design standards, preserving open space and facilitating mixed-use projects.
But critics say the process has gotten bogged down in a page-by-page review, as City Council members rehash issues already debated in the years of public meetings that produced the legislation. As the city's election season approaches next spring, they've grown especially antsy.
"It was like, what the heck is going on? This is dragging on way too long and it needs to actually get passed," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, one of 29 groups that sent a letter to city leaders urging the City Council move forward.
Members of the city's Land Use and Transportation Committee, which has held more than 30 work sessions on the TransForm Baltimore bill, said legislation of this importance merits a careful review.
They and others have introduced between 850 and 1,000 amendments, some minor — fixing typos — while others could have far broader consequences, in some cases striking at provisions key to the original bill. Voting is expected to start next month.
"This is like a Bible for people in city government and in neighborhoods and in development, so it's worth the time," City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said.
One amendment sponsored by Clarke would redefine a single "family" as two unrelated people in a house, rather than four, a move that could restrict people from sharing single-family homes.
The goal is to address neighborhood complaints generated by student housing, but opponents, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the city's universities, say such a move would overturn the city's housing market in some areas and make it more expensive for renters.
Another proposal from Clarke would eliminate a new category of commercial establishments — "neighborhood commercial" — that includes restaurants, day care centers, offices or art galleries in residential neighborhoods.
The new designation, supported by the mayor, was supposed to make neighborhoods more walkable and help reduce vacant properties, but critics say stores are often magnets for unsavory activity and can drive residents away, weakening neighborhoods.
Other changes would restrict the areas where big-box retail stores are permitted; create stricter rules for sororities, fraternities and banquet halls; remove hotels as permitted uses in campus and hospital zones; and limit the neighborhoods where homes can be converted from single-family dwellings to multifamily uses.
Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who chairs the Land Use and Transportation Committee, said one of the most controversial issues — a plan to use the new zoning to reduce the number of liquor stores in residential areas, affecting about 100 businesses — could be settled on a case-by-case basis. Council members could rezone stores with community support for commercial use, while the remainder, which do not conform to laws that ban liquor stores in residential areas, would be phased out after the bill passes, he said.
Committee members are still reviewing the hundreds of amendments and it's not clear how a final version might shake out, especially once it makes it to the full City Council. Discussion of the maps that accompany the code hasn't even begun.
Councilman James B. Kraft, vice chair of the land use committee, said he expects the zoning to move forward by the end of the term — in part to avoid starting the discussions from scratch with new actors.
Kraft is one of two council members who have announced they will be stepping down at the end of the term. The mayor's race also is expected to be competitive.
"We've got to get it done," he said. "It would be irresponsible for us not to."
Rawlings-Blake spokesman Howard Libit said the administration is willing to work with the council to make changes to the neighborhood commercial category but does not want to see it eliminated.
He said Rawlings-Blake also is opposed to changing the definition of family. Problems with noisy, disruptive homes can be resolved using nuisance laws, rather than making it difficult for young professionals to pool resources to rent homes, he said.
Clarke acknowledged that changing the definition of family is an "uphill battle," but a new zoning code offers a chance to review whether the rules governing density are right.
"We should discuss this and make sure we know what we're doing," she said, "because we do have some dangerously overcrowded situations."
Kraft, whose district includes many rentals where young professionals pack into rowhouses and take parking spaces, said he would like to see those living arrangements examined, too.
"We have people who come home at 9:30 at night, they sleep in the house, they leave at 7 o'clock in the morning. Basically, what they do is take a parking space," he said. "It's ridiculous."
Many of the changes reflect a power tussle, as council members look to restore powers the Planning Department's bill stripped from them. For instance, the amendments would make groups that want to open a health clinic in some areas or turn a former factory into apartments go before the City Council for approval.
Critics of giving the council power over uses say it lengthens and politicizes the development process, introducing uncertainty and the possibility of corruption.
"In Maryland and any jurisdiction, tying land use to local political power is often a ticket for abuse," said Chris Ryer, executive director of the Southeast Community Development Corp.
Council members said their moves are a response to a planning department and zoning board that too often operate in the dark.
Clarke pointed to a flare-up in July over a proposal for townhomes in Hoes Heights, after the Planning Department emailed community associations about a rapidly scheduled hearing on the residential project rather than post it on the property as required.
"Streamline is another word, sometimes, for saying, 'Just give me what I want and let's be done with it,'" Clarke said. "The other side of that equation is, what do the neighbors think? Where do they get to weigh in, even to understand what's happening?"
Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur declined to respond to criticism of his department's transparency. David Tanner, executive director of the Municipal Zoning and Appeals Board, defended the board, pointing to its public meetings and said members are required to review projects based on set criteria.
As the sparsely attended work sessions wore on this summer, some decided to take things into their own hands.
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This summer, the Greater Remington Improvement Association introduced a plan to rezone 12 residential properties — some of them vacant — in the neighborhood as commercial buildings, rather than wait for the comprehensive rezoning. The buildings, most of them on corners, were once stores and retain architectural features — large ground-floor windows, for instance — that make residential conversion complicated and expensive.
"Their vacancy is exacerbated by the current code," said Ryan Flanigan, president of the Remington association. "We got frustrated and were looking to other remedies to alleviate some of these vacant properties."
One of the buildings belongs to Andre Stone, a former planner and architecture student turned contractor, who purchased his Miles Avenue property with his wife and another married couple for $65,000 in 2013 with plans for renovation.
The group has since invested about $150,000, Stone said, and expects the renovation to be complete in the fall. They want to be allowed to use the ground floor as commercial space.
Flanigan said he hopes to see the new zoning plan for Remington pass — and the citywide code eventually.
"I'm not at all surprised that it's taken this long, but I hope it happens," he said.