Battle brews in Towson over boundaries of business district

When Towson American Legion Post 22 commander Jim Rebbert looks at a planner's drawing envisioning a future for the patch of land where the post now stands, he gets the jitters. The drawings show businesses and apartments along pleasant, tree-lined thoroughfares, but not the Legion post.

"You don't see us there, need I say more?" Rebbert said.

The Legion's leaders have no intention of going anywhere.

The county is considering several changes this year that would extend the boundaries of downtown Towson, including one that would allow more intense development on the 14-acre triangular expanse where the Legion post stands just south of Towson Circle. Landowners and a former planner have proposed the changes and have met opposition from neighbors and businesses, who question the need for expansion while parts of downtown languish.

Other proposals would allow taller office buildings and cell phone towers just across the western border of the business district on Bosley Avenue — drawing residents of West Towson into the debate about where the line should be drawn.

"I guess the question is, where does Towson grow from here?" said Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents the area. Marks — who would effectively have the final say on the proposed alterations — has not stated a position on the changes.

The council is not scheduled to vote on the requested changes until September — after members have heard from the public, the Planning Board and the Office of Planning staff. It's all part of the process of redrawing the county's zoning map, which has taken place every four years since the mid-1970s.

The Planning Board already has heard from Rebbert; it has also heard from West Towson residents on other requests that would allow more extensive development outside the business district's current boundaries.

"This is what drives me crazy," said Michael P. Ertel, of the West Towson Neighborhood Association, in an interview. "We have this core that's pretty mediocre. We could do a lot of development there. But we're always looking to go somewhere else."

Ertel opposes proposals that would expand the business area and allow taller office buildings, cell towers and other structures on the west side of Bosley Avenue. He and Richard Parsons, who served three terms as president of the neighborhood association, say the zone allowing offices in residential buildings west of Bosley has served well as a buffer to the business core and should stay as it is.

In emails to the district community planner, Ertel and Parsons argued that the people making the zoning requests — six landowners and a former Planning Board member who is a commercial real estate broker — are just trying to increase land values.

"Guaranteeing a real estate investor a profit on his investment at the expense of residential communities is not the hallmark of responsible planning," Parsons said.

The landowners, including former state Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, Charles E. Brooks and Edward Covahey — all of whom have law practices in converted single-family homes on the west side of Bosley Avenue — have asked before for such changes and been denied.

Brooks said he doesn't understand the opposition. From the front window of his office in the 600 block of Bosley, he said he looks out at a "six-lane highway" that hardly qualifies as a quiet residential street.

Besides, he said, the residential buildings already stand a stone's throw from more imposing structures.

In a letter to county planners, Brooks, Boozer and Covahey refer to the "fortress-like compound" that used to be a school and now serves as the Bykota Senior Center.

That three-story brick building — taller than the residences housing law offices — stands behind their land, next to another brick building about the same height that houses the Baltimore County Office of Human Resources. Just west of those county buildings lies a neighborhood park with a ball field and playground, which the three men argue would screen the residential area from anything they would build on their properties.

The zoning change "would have no impact on West Towson whatsoever," Brooks said in an interview.

In their preliminary recommendations, the Office of Planning staff already has sided against Brooks and his co-petitioners on their requests, which would affect just over seven acres. The staff recommended against similar requests in 2008.

The staff has sided against a further request for office building zoning along Bosley that was made by Robert E. Latshaw, a longtime Towson commercial real estate broker who was on the Planning Board when he made the requests but has since left the 15-member panel.

The planning office also recommended against three requests that would expand the core business-commercial district zoning 18 percent, from more than 198 acres to nearly 234 acres in chunks of land to the south, east and north, including the "Golden Triangle" that hosts the American Legion Post. Latshaw made those requests as well.

Latshaw said the changes would make the central business district "more inviting" for potential redevelopment. The new zoning would allow taller buildings, a wider mix of uses in some spots and more restrictions on others. The exact effect would depend on the piece of land.

The proposals include two more sections where business and town center zoning would be expanded. One, several blocks to the north of the triangle, is a stretch along York Road between the traffic circle and Bosley, where there's now a Honda service center, the Towson Promenade apartments, an office building and a strip of businesses. South of there, a couple of blocks east of Virginia Avenue that are now lined with homes and small office buildings would be made part of the business-town center zone.

Latshaw said he was focused on making it easier to build apartment buildings near the business core, saying, "We need desperately people within walking distance of the heart of Towson."

A committee named by Marks months ago has been working to figure out what to do with the "Golden Triangle" with or without the zoning changes.

The wedge-shaped bowl of land has a few stands of trees and a stream running through the south side. Driving by, you wouldn't even see the Legion hall, which stands inside the bowl, but you'd see the businesses along the rim: the Towson University Marriott Conference Hotel, a Starbucks, a string of small restaurants, a dry cleaner, Dunkin' Donuts and Jiffy Lube.

If it doesn't look like much, it is considered a significant bridge between Towson University and the business core. A 2012 report by the county's Department of Economic Development included the Triangle as one of nine strategic "business investment areas" that could be "developed as signature mixed use project"

Rebbert doesn't like the sound of that. He fears the county Revenue Authority's power to take land for economic development. The Legion's executive committee has voted several times to reject developers' offers to buy the property. According to state land records, the projected July 2012 assessed value of its 4.6 acres is $2.93 million.

Rebbert said the Legion has been there since the late 1940s and plans to stay, especially since it generates about 90 percent of its revenue by leasing its parking lot and banquet rooms. The Towson post has to stay in Towson, he said, and he doesn't know where else in the area the Legion could find a comparable piece of land.

"To me this is a fantastic use of the land," he said, standing on a slope overlooking the hall, the parking lot and the ball field next to it. "We enjoy it here, we're part of the community. We're part of the history. This is where we want to be. It comes down to that."