Zoning proposals intended to maintain neighborhood character

Homeowners across the city could see their property rights altered by the first zoning code overhaul in more than 40 years.

City officials said the sweeping revisions, dubbed Transform Baltimore, would preserve the character of neighborhoods and make it easier for homes to be modernized.

"If your zoning is changing, it doesn't necessarily mean your neighborhood is going to change," said Tom Stosur, Baltimore's director of planning.

Stosur and his staff, who spent the past four years writing and rewriting the proposed code, want to assure people that the changes would not allow businesses to spring up in the middle of tree-filled blocks of single-family homes.

Still, the proposed code contains several revisions that would modify what homeowners can do with their land and how they go about making changes to their properties. The proposals include minimum design standards for new homes, limitations on the amount and type of paving that can be used on a home lot, a ban on splitting large residential lots and a streamlining of the process for making adjustments to a residence.

The version of the code introduced by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to the City Council last month is the Planning Department's third draft. It features input from residents, businesses and planning experts. The Planning Commission has scheduled a series of hearings on the proposed code, beginning Thursday. The City Council begins its own hearing process on the bill in early April.

The proposed zoning code addresses residential districts in two sections. Title 8 deals with property in areas dominated by detached and semi-detached homes. Title 9 addresses rowhouse and multifamily districts. The Planning Department launched a website, rewritebaltimore.org, where residents can search by address to see where their homes would fall under the proposed code.

Both sections lay out design standards, complete with example diagrams, that dictate how new homes should look. If the code is adopted, it would be the first time Baltimore had a unified set of standards for the appearance of homes, Stosur said.

"We still want a building to be in the general scale and character of a neighborhood," Stosur said. The design standards are minimal, but would help the city deter the construction of boxy, bland houses among distinctive homes, he said.

For instance, the front entry on new detached and semi-detached homes "must be a dominant feature," according to the new code: "The front entry should be emphasized … using features such as porches and raised steps and stoops with roof overhangs or decorative railings, to create a protected entry area and articulate the front facade."

Likewise, the proposed code prohibits blank side walls on new detached homes. And among the rules for the appearance of "infill" rowhouses — for example, replacements for burned-out buildings in the middle of a block — is a dictate that "brick colors should be consistent with Baltimore traditions."

"These design standards will help us assure that [Baltimore's] housing stock will be demanded by homebuyers," said Seema D. Iyer, the associate director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, which tracks applications to the city's zoning board.

The design standards should help modernize the appearance of the city's homes, bringing them more in line with contemporary sensibilities, Iyer said. That also could help increase home prices, she said.

The simplified process for making changes to existing homes would help modernize the housing stock too, Iyer said.

The current law requires homeowners to address the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals in a public hearing for even small changes to their home or lot. The cumbersome public hearing process inhibits people from adapting their homes in ways that have become commonplace elsewhere, Iyer said.

"It's crazy, almost, that this is the nature of development in Baltimore today," she said.

The proposed code allows homeowners to make minor changes to a property with only approval by the zoning administrator as long as the homeowner has posted notice — a sign in the yard or window, for instance — of the impending change for 10 days and has received no objections.

The new system would save homeowners time and hassle — no more taking time off work to go meet with the zoning board — when they want to make changes to the property that their neighbors don't mind, Stosur said.

The zoning bill also eliminates a requirement that rowhouses be at least 16 feet wide. Many Baltimore rowhouses are narrower than that, Stosur said, so homeowners in rowhouse districts often have been required to appeal to the zoning board in order to make minor changes.

Another significant change for some homeowners is the institution of minimum lot sizes and widths, intended to prevent homeowners from selling off parts of their yards for new home construction. The largest lot considered by the current zoning code is about a half-acre. That means homeowners who have larger lots can sell off unused portions, creating two smaller tracts.

The proposed code provides for neighborhoods with minimum lot sizes as large as 1 and 2 acres.

"The whole idea behind this is if you can keep lot size fairly standard … you can prevent these smaller subdivisions coming in," Stosur said.

Those are provisions North Baltimore residents want, said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who represents homeowners in neighborhoods with large lots. "The Planning Department has recognized that the residents want to maintain the neighborhood," she said.

For areas with detached homes, lots also would be required to meet minimum widths, ranging from 45 feet (for neighborhoods such as Cylburn) to 100 feet (for neighborhoods such as North Roland Park-Poplar Hill). This would prevent new homes from being built behind existing homes in most neighborhoods, Stosur said.

The Planning Department also hopes to institute some rules that would further the goal of sustainable, environmentally friendly development, he said. The most significant such change for homeowners is a rule that would prevent pavement from being poured over more than 40 percent or 50 percent of a lot (depending on the residential zone).

Not only would reductions in paving allow more rainwater to filter through the soil before entering waterways, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, but "the less paving that is done the more green you have," Stosur said.

So far, the proposed zoning changes that would affect homeowners have not caused debate, according to Baltimore's elected officials and community leaders. Homeowners seem more concerned about the zoning of the commercial areas near their neighborhoods, they said.

Based on a meeting with the Planning Department, Linda Gruzs, the president of the Cedmont Community Improvement Association in Northeast Baltimore, said she thought the proposed code would strengthen protections for neighborhood character and make zoning rules easier to understand. Her neighbors are more concerned about the commercial zoning along Bel Air Road, she said.

Similar sentiments were shared by neighborhood leaders in North Baltimore, Fells Point and West Baltimore. Steven Gondol, the executive director of Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that promotes living in Baltimore's neighborhoods, agreed.

"If it was detrimental, there would be a lot more people up in arms," he said.



Select zoning proposals that affect Baltimore's homes

City officials say the proposed zoning overhaul would help protect neighborhood character

Side facades — Blank side walls would be prohibited on newly built detached and semi-detached homes: "Windows, side entrances or other architectural features are required to avoid the appearance of blank walls facing neighboring homes."

Rowhouse infill — Design guidelines would dictate the height, setback and appearance of new rowhouses that are built within a group of existing rowhouses "that were originally designed and developed as a single, coordinated rowhouse development."

Lot size — Single-family districts would be created to prevent the subdivision of large home lots. Under the current zoning laws, owners of lots larger than one-half acre can sell off portions of their land for home development. The proposed code creates residential districts with minimum lot sizes including 1 and 2 acres.

Lot width — The proposed code sets minimum residential lot widths in some communities of detached homes, to maintain consistency across a neighborhood. This would prevent new homes from being built behind existing homes. The minimum widths range from 30 feet to 100 feet.

Conditional uses — Educational and religious centers currently are allowed in residential areas. The proposed code would make these and other institutional uses — including community centers, museums and government facilities — "conditional," meaning they would require a permit from the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals.

Impervious surfaces — For new detached and semi-detached homes, the code would prevent landowners from pouring too much concrete or nondraining asphalt. Land owners would not be allowed to cover more than 40 percent or 50 percent, depending on their community, of their lot with an impervious material.

Source: Baltimore City Council Bill 12-0152

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