Baltimore County Council amends development bill

The Baltimore County Council on Monday made significant changes to a measure involving the county development approval process after preservationists said it would undermine an essential county growth-control tool and could run afoul of state law.

Originally, the bill sponsored by Councilmen David Marks and Tom Quirk would have allowed development outside a growth-management boundary adopted 45 years ago, but the council removed that provision under an amendment by Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat.

Bevins said allowing such development "simply goes too far."

Council members also made changes they said would increase transparency in the so-called Planned Unit Development (PUD) process, including requiring agency comments and minutes from community input meetings to be posted online.

Still, some community members are concerned about the bill, which passed 6-0.

Bowleys Quarters neighborhood activist Allen Robertson said he was pleased with the amendments but still worries that the legislation gives the county planning office "too much latitude to avoid the protections of the master plan."

The measure allows the county hearing officer to approve a PUD if it is supported in any one of three ways: by the master plan, a community plan, or the planning office. That effectively gives the office the authority to override the countywide master plan or local community plans.

That provision might defy the state's Sustainable Growth Act of 2009, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a statewide preservationist organization. The law says local land-use decisions should conform with comprehensive plans.

Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a group that focuses on preserving the rural north county, wrote an email to Marks and two other council members last week expressing the organization's strong opposition to the bill.

Moore said the measure "makes the master plan moot and will almost certainly trigger legal challenges at higher levels."

The original legislation would have allowed PUDs outside the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL), a boundary established in 1967 that roughly marks the extent of public water and sewer service, on land served entirely or partly by public water. In the past, sewer service has been extended outside the URDL, which separates rural from more urban and suburban areas, only for health reasons, not to support new development.

Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, and Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, said they listened to community concerns about the URDL and also sought to increase transparency of the PUD process by requiring more information to be posted online. They also said they believe the legislation would not change the role of the master plan.

Also Monday, the council introduced a measure that would change the county's ethics law to comply with state standards. Among other changes, the legislation would bar elected officials from accepting sports tickets as gifts from people who do business with the county.

The state Ethics Commission in February told the county that its ethics law does not comply with state rules because, among other reasons, it permits such gifts.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

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