Two members of the Baltimore County Council are sponsoring a bill that would pave the way for a controversial outlet mall in White Marsh.
Owners of the nearby White Marsh Mall and local residents have fought the proposed 100-store mall, entangling its Baltimore-based developer, Paragon Outlet Partners, in zoning appeals since early last year.
The bill from Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins and Councilman Tom Quirk would allow the outlet mall to be built as a matter of right, without needing extra layers of zoning approval.
Bevins, a Middle River Democrat who represents the area, said an outlet mall is a perfect use of the property and her bill would allow it to open more quickly. The appeals process, she said, could drag on for years.
"It goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth," she said. "I would like to create jobs now."
G. Macy Nelson, an attorney representing residents opposed to the outlet mall, said the bill smacks of political favoritism.
"It's pure politics, unequivocally, pure politics," Nelson said.
The proposal started out as a mixed-use development that would have included offices, more than 1,200 homes, retail shops and a hotel.
That project was granted zoning approval by an administrative judge, but later Paragon took over the project and sought changes to that approval, scrapping the offices and many of the homes in favor of outlet stores such as Coach, True Religion and Movado.
The nearby White Marsh Mall and a group of residents have been fighting the revised plan before a county administrative judge and the county's Board of Appeals. The mall argues the Paragon outlets would unfairly put a dent in its business, while the residents have focused their concerns on traffic and stormwater runoff into White Marsh Run and the Bird River.
The next meeting in the appeals case is set for Thursday.
Bevins' bill would declare that a "regional outlet shopping center" is an allowed use for a property of a certain size that's adjacent to Interstate 95 with a type of industrial zoning. The bill's requirements line up with the Paragon property.
Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said he agreed to co-sponsor the bill because it could be applied to properties near Interstate 95 in his district. He also likes the idea of bringing an outlet mall to the county. The nearest outlet malls are in Hagerstown and Queenstown.
"I think Baltimore County needs to continue to do things that welcome and encourage business," he said. "It will help provide jobs, it will stimulate the local tax base."
Paragon partner R. Kelvin Antill and the company's Towson-based attorney, G. Scott Barhight, declined to discuss the bill or the project in detail.
"Paragon supports the legislation and that would be all we'd be able to say," Barhight said.
Antill and other Paragon executives donated a combined $5,000 to Bevins before her last election in 2014, according to state campaign finance records.
Six Paragon officials donated $500 each to Bevins over the course of two days last spring. Antill gave $1,000 to Bevins in 2013 and another $1,000 to her campaign in 2014. Antill also donated $1,000 to Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz before the 2014 election.
None of the Paragon executives donated to Quirk.
"While it's all legal, she has taken money from Paragon employees who don't even live in the state," said Jeanne VanPoppel, a nearby resident, of Bevins. "Then she writes this bill — right before it's supposed to come up before the judge — that might override what the judge says."
Antill and Barhight declined to discuss the campaign donations.
Asked if the donations influenced her decision to sponsor the bill, Bevins answered: "Absolutely not."
"It doesn't influence me," she said. "I've said 'no' many times to people who have contributed to my campaign."
Nelson, the neighbors' attorney, said he thinks the bill amounts to illegal spot-zoning, and he said his clients could challenge the bill in court on those grounds if it becomes law.
"The question is: Is it legal? The answer unequivocally is: It's not," Nelson said.
If the developer wants the property rezoned, the appropriate way to do that is through the once-every-four-years comprehensive rezoning process that begins this fall, Nelson said. During that process, the county evaluates properties all over the county for zoning changes.
Nelson said he thinks Paragon sought the bill because they aren't confident of the outcome of the ongoing appeals process.
"This tells me they thought they couldn't win the legal case," he said.
Heather Patti, who is participating in the appeal and serves as president of the White Marsh-Cowenton Community Association, said residents didn't know Bevins was going to introduce the outlet mall bill.
"This whole bill really took me by surprise because it really seems like most of the community is against this for various reasons," she said. "It just seems so opposite that she would go out of the way to create a bill that specifically goes against the wishes of the people that she is supposed to represent and serve."
Amanda Feinstein, who also has been involved in opposing the outlet mall, said she feels like the bill ignores the concerns she and others have raised about increased traffic and crowded schools in the White Marsh area.
"This bill is ridiculous and, if anything, the residents of White Marsh should have the power to decide what does and doesn't get built here," she said.
Her concerns are echoed by Jason Samios-Uy, a Rosedale Republican who lost to Bevins in the last election and who is considering a run in 2018. He called the bill "a bad piece of legislation."
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"When did our representatives decide it was OK to start making decisions for us based on their opinions rather than based on our input?" he asked.
The outlet mall has also been opposed by the nearby White Marsh Mall and its parent company, Chicago-based General Growth Properties. At one point last year, General Growth helped fund a campaign that steered residents to sending anti-outlet messages to county officials.
The mall's Towson-based attorney, Edward J. Gilliss, said the bill "has the potential to impact" the ongoing appeals process.
As part of the appeal, Gilliss has argued that the Paragon outlets would cut into the White Marsh Mall's business. Baltimore County's rules for the type of approval that Paragon sought, called a planned-unit development, require that the project not harm existing businesses, Gilliss argued.
The council will hold a public hearing on the bill at its next work session, 2 p.m. on July 28 at the Historic Courthouse at 400 Washington Ave. in Towson. A vote is scheduled for the next regular meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 3, also at the Historic Courthouse.