Baltimore County is missing out on money for public parks and trails because of deductions from fees paid by developers, according to a nonprofit that works to conserve open space in neighborhoods.
The group, NeighborSpace of Baltimore County, is pushing legislation that would eliminate some of those deductions. An industry group opposes the effort, saying it would drive up project costs. The County Council is scheduled to discuss that bill at their meeting next week.
The debate centers on “open-space waiver fees,” which are paid when developers build new housing — and have long been a source of dispute in the county. Eighty percent of the fees go to the county’s Department of Recreation and Parks, with the remainder allocated to NeighborSpace.
In fiscal year 2018, county government collected about $579,000 in fees, according to a county report. A new NeighborSpace analysis of public records concluded that deductions by developers reduced county collections by more than $1 million since 2016.
County law requires developers to set aside 1,000 square feet of open space per dwelling unit when they build new homes. When that’s not possible, they can seek a waiver from county government and pay fees instead. But the law also reduces those fees if amenities or other features are included.
For instance, the county deducts 60% of the cost of private amenities — such as rooftop pools and recreation courts which can only be used by residents — from the fees. And, in certain cases, the county counts scattered grassy slivers like parking islands as open space, which also cuts the fees.
“It’s clear we’re not seeing the type of revenue we thought we might get,” said County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican who introduced the legislation with Council Chairman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat. “I’m hoping that the bill will provide additional funding for open space throughout Baltimore County, which is in short supply.”
Sixty-five percent of residents in the county’s more developed areas can’t access a park or open space within a five-minute walk, according to a previous analysis NeigborSpace conducted with the National Park Service.
The Maryland Building Industry Association says that the fee reductions help promote recreational amenities and that eliminating them would increase project costs.
"We feel that it’s going to deter private amenity construction and make Baltimore County projects more expensive and less desirable,” said CEO Lori Graf, adding that the organization has doubts about the $1 million figure.
Barbara Hopkins, executive director of NeighborSpace, said open-space laws are meant to address the shortage of recreational space and offset the negative impacts of growth — but the fee reductions amount to a “financial benefit for a few at the expense of many.”
“A family can’t picnic on a parking strip or garden on the green … or take a walk on a private rooftop pickleball court,” Hopkins said.
The county’s 2018 report cites several projects whose fees were reduced by amenity costs, including the Martin Farms townhome community off Rossville Boulevard and apartments at the Foundry Row development in Owings Mills. The report doesn’t detail the reductions.
Hopkins said NeighborSpace examined publicly available development plans to determine how much fee reductions totaled over the past few years. The $1 million total is a conservative estimate, Hopkins said, based on what she called “the parking island loophole” alone.
The deductions stem from 2016 legislation, sponsored by Marks and then-Councilwoman Vicki Almond, that overhauled the fee structure. But NeighborSpace leaders and Marks said it wasn’t clear to them at the time how substantially the deductions could reduce the fees.
“The idea was that everybody had their own little garden. Increasingly, people don’t think that way anymore. ... We believe that open space creates so much value.”— Klaus Philipsen, an architect and president of the NeighborSpace board
NeighborSpace receives private donations and grants in addition to open-space waiver fee revenues, which can be used for operating and other expenses. It acquires land and works with community groups to create small parks, gardens and trails. Its projects include Powhatan Park, once a dead-end lot in the Lochearn area, and Ridgely Manor Park, a 2-acre site Parkville featuring a playground and picnic tables.
The organization focuses on the county’s inner suburbs — the more densely populated, older communities, such as Catonsville, Dundalk and Towson.
When older suburbs were designed, little thought was given to open space. “The idea was that everybody had their own little garden,” said Klaus Philipsen, an architect and president of the NeighborSpace board. “Increasingly, people don’t think that way anymore. ... We believe that open space creates so much value."
The Morning Sun
The County Council is scheduled to discuss the bill Aug. 27. A vote is set for Sept. 3.
One councilman, Julian Jones, said he questioned why changes were necessary a few years after the county overhauled the fees after discussions between community groups, industry representatives and the council.
“I don’t think anybody was 100% happy, but they all came to some consensus‚” said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, adding that he hasn’t yet taken a position on the current bill. “And now one of the parties is saying they’re dissatisfied.”
Hopkins says there are broader problems with the fees. The 2016 legislation required the county to devise a new fee schedule, but it never did, Hopkins said — so it’s unclear how the county has been calculating the fees.
The group has now appealed to the administration of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat who took office in December, to work on the fee schedule.
Olszewski spokesman T.J. Smith said the administration is reviewing the issue.
“We share a desire to update the law, if necessary, but want to take a comprehensive look at the law and its application,” Smith said in an email to The Sun.