The Baltimore County Council will vote soon on the current 2030 Master Plan proposal, which maps the county’s growth and development framework for the next decade.
But the latest draft of the plan, which the Baltimore County Planning Board approved in late June, bucks recommendations advocates say would bring more transparency and order to the county’s complicated planning and zoning processes.
Baltimore County first unveiled the draft plan in May after almost two years of community input meetings. The initial version included recommendations that would have overhauled the planned unit development process and rearranged some planning and zoning processes to follow the Master Plan. It also called for the county to “retrofit” certain areas by repurposing old developments.
The planning board voted to strike or modify all those suggestions during a June 29 special meeting and sent the draft plan to the County Council, which will discuss it at an upcoming meeting but not during the council’s scheduled meeting next Monday. After receiving it from the Planning Board, the county council can either accept or modify the Master Plan and then adopt it by resolution, according to the Baltimore County Charter.
The draft plan recommended by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. would have had the Baltimore County Planning Board “evaluate and amend” the planned unit development process for transparency.
Planned unit developments, or PUDs, are mixed-use developments that grant zoning exemptions to builders in exchange for adhering to a higher standard of building quality, or agreeing to provide public benefits, like a park.
According to its introduction, the original draft plan would have “clearly articulate[d] eligibility requirements” for PUDs, conveyed tangible community benefits and “ensure[d] a higher quality development.”
The Planning Board opted to strike language to amend the PUD process, in favor of allowing its members to “evaluate” it going forward, after developers testified the changes would hamstring projects. The county is poised to run out of developable land within the urban-demarcation line, or URDL, in the next 20 years, and faces overburdened public facilities despite a shrinking population.
In dozens of identical letters, developers wrote, “The plan acknowledges the county has limited land available for development yet it calls ... [for] revamping the PUD process ... The PUD process should not be amended.”
Michael Greenspun, a developer with Basic Development Co., which specializes in residential buildings, said developers feared that amending the PUD process would add an extra layer of review and slow down the process for getting planning approval.
“Though the process isn’t perfect, it does work and does provide avenues for developers to work outside the box,” he said.
The board also voted to leave out a recommendation to promote “retrofitting” in core “node” areas with preexisting public transit and proximity to jobs and commercial areas. Instead, the county would encourage and incentivize development in those areas, and allow building to “occur anywhere within the URDL and in certain areas outside of the URDL where zoning would permit it.”
Greenspun said he and others were happy the board opted to leave out that recommendation because they feared “the implicit message” was that builders would be barred from developing outside of the targeted “node” areas.
“We’re happy [to do that] but not if it comes at the expense of no longer being able to develop in existing neighborhoods,” he said.
Planning Board members also voted to reject language that would have moved the comprehensive zoning map process from happening once every four years to once every 10 years, to better align with the Master Plan.
That decision disappointed county planner John Alexander, who retired in 2012 after serving in Baltimore County government since 1989.
When he worked on the 2010 Master Plan, he and other staff met with builders who also resisted any changes to the plan.
Their message, Alexander said, was: “‘We like suburban sprawl because it works for us.’ I see the same thing happening again [with the 2030 Master Plan].”
Land-use advocates have criticized the county for ignoring the Master Plan in favor of allowing projects on an as-needed basis. Maryland law requires local land-use decisions follow master plans except in so-called priority funding areas, like within the UDRL, where local governments want to encourage state investment.
Moving the comprehensive zoning map process to occur after the Master Plan, Alexander said, would have invigorated the plan by turning it from a “coffee table book” into a viable strategy to dictate where building and zoning can occur.
During the comprehensive zoning map process, or CZMP, the County Council considers residents’ zoning reclassification requests for individual properties, for example, to allow denser buildings in residential neighborhoods. The 2024 process will begin next month.
Developers “have been pretty successful over the past few decades” in getting their way, Alexander said.
The council comprises “the ones who make the decisions and make the recommendations,” he said. Rezoning is “their bailiwick and their main power in the government. They don’t want to give it up ... but there needs to be some change if the Master Plan is going to make any sort of sense.”
Retired Howard County Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin, a Lutherville resident, said she was disappointed the board rejected shifting the rezoning process.
“The Master Plan has been treated as irrelevant,” McLaughlin said. “If we don’t tie the Master Plan to the CZMP, anyone can ask for anything.”
Other areas, like Howard County and Montgomery County, adopt master plans that serve as frameworks for more area-specific plans.
Despite the board’s changes, Olszewski said the Master Plan still offered a “bold, aspirational vision.”
“While we remain supportive of the framework as introduced, the Planning Board’s amended proposal will still be transformational in supporting our rapidly growing and diverse communities,” he said.
The County Council has made some overtures in recent months to overhaul planning and zoning.
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In June, members voted to rescind developers’ plans to build an industrial park on the former LaFarge quarry in Middle River after residents complained the project would burden local roads and mar the surrounding countryside.
The council’s action worried Jim Lighthizer of Chesapeake Real Estate Group, one of the quarry developers, who said the changes to the planning process were unfair.
“You can’t just change your mind in the middle of the process,” he said.
He said his firm had community support and had spent “hundreds of thousands” of dollars on engineering and topography studies to comply with building requirements.
“We just want the county to do what’s fair and manage the process. Every decision government makes, one side [is] happy, and others [aren’t],” Lighthizer said. “Whatever you decide, you’ve got to stick to it. You can’t flip-flop based on the Master Plan.”
The developers are working with the county to envision alternative uses for the 450-acre quarry property, Lighthizer said.
This article has been updated to reflect that the Baltimore County Council can accept or modify the Master Plan proposal sent by the Planning Board and that the council will not discuss this Master Plan proposal during their meeting next Monday. The Sun regrets the error.