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‘A slippery slope’: Baltimore County residents say council skirts zoning process, state law with targeted bills

Baltimore County residents and community groups are questioning several bills recently approved by County Council that they say target specific properties and projects while exempting developers from fees and zoning restrictions.

The practice is a long-standing one in Baltimore County, but some community groups question whether it could withstand a legal challenge. Opponents say the bills are akin to “spot zoning” — a practice that generally benefits the owner of a single piece of land by allowing it to be used in a way surrounding properties can’t be.

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The council gave a green light last week to three such proposals. Bills sponsored by Democratic Councilman Izzy Patoka clear the way for a town house development in Owings Mills while exempting the developer from some requirements, and allow the Park School of Baltimore to build an addition.

A third bill filed by Republican Councilman Wade Kach allows a commercial kennel on a plot of land in Cockeysville but doesn’t include developer exemptions.

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“The problem that we have, of course, with any zoning that affects and is for the benefit of one property is just that — it’s for the benefit of one property,” said Alan Zukerberg, president of the Pikesville Communities Corp., a coalition of community groups.

Spot zoning is prohibited in Maryland when a change is made to benefit private interests that’s inconsistent with a comprehensive plan. By changing the uses allowed on a property rather than its zoning classification, some residents say the county circumvents the standard development review process — and the law — which could result in patchwork zoning and convoluted regulations.

“This approach makes other established laws and processes meaningless,” said Barbara Hopkins, executive director of NeighborSpace, a Towson-based land preservation advocacy organization.

Patoka, who is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners, contended his bills are in keeping with the surrounding land use; the Owings Mills site is near residential property zoned for dense development and is off Reisterstown Road in a heavily commercialized area.

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During a council meeting last month, several residents testified against the proposal to permit 68 residential units be built on property owned by Southern Land Co., near the private Garrison Forest School.

The bill exempts Southern Land from adhering to setback requirements, allowing construction closer to the property’s borders. And the town house condominiums won’t need to got through the standard review process.

After backlash from environmental preservation groups during the hearing, Patoka removed an exemption that would have freed Southern Land from paying open space waiver fees. Developers pay open space fees when a project doesn’t include parks, lawns, trails or other features.

Officials at Garrison Forest School and Southern Land told Baltimore County Council that the legislation is a compromise. The parties have been at odds for years over Southern Land’s approved plan to build a Wawa and shopping center on the property and a two-story office building behind the businesses, which some neighbors opposed.

Southern Land decided to build the condominiums instead of the office building, according to William Yerman, the building and grounds chair at Garrison Forest.

“It stops the commercial creep back to Garrison Forest,” he said in an interview.

Patoka helped negotiate a restrictive covenant between the school and Southern Land stipulating the developer reduce the number of proposed condominiums, spend “significant funds” to enhance a buffer between the school and the shopping center, and improve landscaping and build amenities for “the benefit of the school and future residents,” Yerman wrote in a letter of support.

“This use is far more advantageous to our [the school’s] footprint,” Yerman said during the hearing on the bill.

The developer also agreed to offer discounted condominiums to Garrison Forest teachers, Patoka and Yerman said.

Some see the practice more as constituent service, while criticizing zoning carveouts for developers.

Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council Inc., said he’s not opposed to targeted zoning changes, but thinks the Southern Land project bypasses too much of the review process.

“What makes this property special that it doesn’t have to be held accountable to” the same standards required of “any other development in Baltimore County?” Rockel asked.

Kingsville resident Mike Pierce said the bills continue a council pattern of using “special laws,” which apply to a group of people and not the general public, to enable or prevent development on specific tracts of land. For the past decade, he’s tracked upward of 100 similar bills.

Special laws are prohibited in certain circumstances under the Maryland Constitution.

“If you see a zoning change that is so narrowly defined it could only logically apply to this subject property, there’s a high probability, in my view, it’s an illegal special law,” said G. Macy Nelson, a Towson-based attorney who specializes in land use law.

Nelson pointed to a recent case he won in Howard County after that county last year amended its zoning regulations to benefit a private school. A circuit court judge ruled the bill illegal, writing that it “carves out a very specific process for a specific class to bypass the existing procedure only under very specific circumstances.”

None of the Baltimore County critics said they currently planned to challenge Patoka’s bill in court.

Ninety-nine “out of 100 times, this is not the appropriate course,” Patoka said of his bills in an interview. “This is that one time that I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Kach did not respond to requests for comment.

County Councilman Tom Quirk voted against Patoka’s Owings Mills bill, but in favor of the other two land use bills.

“The developer’s a great guy and he does really good work,” Quirk said of the Owings Mills proposal, but “this is a slippery slope we have to be really careful on.”

The council’s practice of “zoning by legislation” is “definitely creating more and more of a precedent,” the Oella Democrat said.

Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, said during the hearing that the problem wasn’t the substance of the compromise but how it was reached.

“We really believe that process matters,” Moore said. “The ends don’t justify the means.”

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