Marty Bement leads a group in Fells Point that wants to see heights limited to 45 feet within the historic district. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)
Baltimore City Council members vowed last week to vote in October on a long-awaited rewrite of the city's zoning rules, updating city code for the first time in more than 40 years.
There's just one problem: No one seems sure what's in it.
The overhaul, dubbed TransForm Baltimore, was supposed to usher in an era of faster, simpler development, with rules that would ease reuse of the city's old buildings and encourage walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods suited to 21st-century tastes.
But since the City Council received the bill in 2012, members have signed off on more than 290 amendments to the text and considered more than 800 — and requests for revisions continue to pour in. City Council staff members are still wrestling to pin down a final draft incorporating all the changes.
"We don't even know what's going on half the time," Fells Point resident Deborah Tempera exploded at council members at a hearing Wednesday. "The Planning Department of Baltimore City had a plan. They worked hard on this. Ever since it's gotten into your hands, it's been a fiasco."
Planning officials and others following the bill say they believe the original code is moving forward largely intact.
But it remains unclear how the new rules will be applied. Property owners have requested hundreds of changes to the maps — many of them in anticipation of future development — turning the bill into a battleground over individual projects throughout the city.
In Fells Point, neighborhood groups banded together to try to win support for a special overlay district that would limit building heights, which they say would better protect the historic character of their rowhouse neighborhood. Much of their ire is directed against outgoing City Councilman James B. Kraft, who has said he thinks the existing historic district provides sufficient protection.
In Hampden, where Himmelrich Associates plans to redevelop the Pepsi plant on Union Avenue, the Hampden Community Council is opposing the firm's request to remap the industrial property for a dense, transit-oriented development, saying it will not support the designation until the developer puts forward a clearer plan.
City Councilman Nick Mosby is hosting an emergency meeting between the developer and community groups on Oct. 17, where he hopes to broker a compromise.
In Highlandtown, the Baltimore Industrial Group, an industry association, is fighting to preserve industrial zoning on properties near rail and truck routes along Haven Street proposed for residential or commercial status.
In Roland Park, the Baltimore Country Club is trying to prevent a map change supported by neighbors that would limit the number of homes that could be built on the club's land, which slopes from its hilltop clubhouse down to Falls Road, creating a pocket of open space across the road from two of the city's flagship public high schools.
The dispute revives long-simmering tension over the fate of the property, which the Roland Park Civic League would like to see turned into a park and which the club once proposed selling for redevelopment into a retirement community. (The club closed its Roland Park golf course in 1962, selling the land west of Falls Road and adding another course to its Lutherville campus, where it first opened a golf course in 1926.)
Baltimore Country Club President Mark Dumler accused the civic league of a "government-assisted taking" that will hurt the elite organization's borrowing capacity and finances and is designed to lower the value of the property so the civic league can buy it.
Chris McSherry, first vice president of the civic league, said the group only wants the property zoned for lot sizes that match nearby homes.
"If this is going to be developed, we just want it to be developed consistent with the rest of the community," she said.
City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton has said she supports the neighborhood proposal.
Council members said they intend to vote on maps based on the preference of the council person from the district in question. That's done little to diminish lobbying or anxiety — and led some to say the public hasn't had enough time to properly vet the final bill, despite years of meetings on the subject.
"The process has just been … confusing," said Marty Bement, who leads the Historic Fells Point Work Group, which has been pushing for the height limits there. Bement said he and others are waiting to see how the maps match up to the text. "The two have to go together. … When they finally do make that decision, I think there ought to be a really significant period of time that the public can look at the results."
Baltimore planners started working in 2008 on a comprehensive update of the zoning code, which governs everything from parking requirements, lot sizes and signs to what types of businesses are allowed where.
The Planning Department released its first draft in 2010, turning a bill over to the City Council in 2012. Since then, the council has held more than 40 meetings on the topic, including about two dozen voting sessions.
Despite many changes at the margins, Planning Department Director Thomas J. Stosur said he believes the code will fulfill its original intent of making land use rules easier to understand and work with, while moving away from the strict divisions between residential, commercial and industrial areas enshrined in the current rules.
New categories for "neighborhood commercial" buildings and "industrial mixed use" properties, designed to ease mixed-use projects, remain. (Unlike the original proposal, some uses, such as banquet halls, will require City Council approval.)
Some parking requirements have been loosened and the committee also has preserved rules to limit liquor stores — one of the earliest and fiercest fights, which became less of an issue after many shops were destroyed in last year's riots. (About two dozen liquor stores likely will remain thanks to map amendments, according to Planning Department officials.)
The council's Land Use and Transportation Committee has pushed back in other places, such as provisions aimed at ridding downtown of surface parking lots, Stosur said. The committee also scrapped a proposal to standardize the process for approving conversions of residential buildings into multiple units, moving to require City Council approval of those projects.
City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, the committee chair, said he expects to present the bill to the full council Oct. 24. The committee has scheduled at least two more sessions before then.
Reisinger defended the time it's taken to reach the home stretch, saying he and his colleagues have done a "yeoman's job" as they work to balance the interests involved.
"It's a lot of pieces of the puzzle that it's got to fit," he said.
The bill will likely be amended even after it passes, as errors are caught, Reisinger and others said. Stosur said the Planning Department hopes to perform more frequent updates of the code in the future so that the next overhaul doesn't take as long as the current one.
Attorney John Murphy, one of several veteran lawyers and consultants who have been following the zoning proceedings, said the flurry of amendments and down-to-the-wire decisions was to be expected, given the vastness of the task. The current zoning bill was approved in 1971, nearly 15 years after a commission started work on it.
"It was the same," Murphy said. "Chaos at the end."