Baltimore County parking legislation lacks transparency, critics say

Some community activists in Baltimore County are worried that a proposal to make certain shopping centers' parking lots smaller would lack transparency.

Under a bill sponsored by Councilmen John Olszewski Sr.and Kenneth Oliver, owners of shopping centers that are 100,000 square feet or larger could ask the director of the county's Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections to reduce the number of required parking spaces by up to 40 percent.

Community activist Mike Pierce of Kingsville told council members at a meeting Tuesday that requests for parking reductions usually are handled by administrative law judges. That process allows for public notification and comment, he said.

Under the legislation, the director of permits, approvals and inspections would recommend changes that would make the parking lot safer, more attractive or more environmentally friendly. For instance, he could recommend a plan to improve accessibility for people with disabilities or the planting of trees to reduce "the heat island effect from paved surfaces," according to the bill.

The county's environmental and planning departments also would review requests for parking reductions.

Pierce emphasized that he agrees with the concept of making parking lots smaller, saying it would help the environment. But, he said, "I find it a little strange that the decision on providing this reduction in space would be with the director" of permits, approvals and inspections."

Alan Zukerberg of the Pikesville Communities Corp. said his group is opposed to the measure, which is scheduled for a council vote Monday.

"It takes [the process] out of the public purview," Zukerberg told the council.

Current law generally requires shopping centers that are 100,000 square feet or larger to have at least 500 parking spaces, according to the county auditor's analysis of the bill.

Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat, said he proposed the bill because many shopping center parking spaces sit unused. "There's a lot of positive things" that could be done with that space, he said.

Also Tuesday, attorney Susan Dubin of the county law office told the council that that the county has hired the law firm Venable LLP to represent it in the bankruptcy case of RG Steel, which owns the Sparrows Point steel mill. The company owes the county about $4.5 million in taxes and sewage fees.

"We needed to act quickly," she said, adding that the county needed a firm with specialized knowledge.

Under a proposed contract with Venable, the county will pay $468 to $561 per hour for legal services, which is a 15 percent discount. The contract does not limit how much the county will pay Venable, but county officials estimate the work will cost about $60,000.

Baltimore City has also hired Venable to represent its interests in the bankruptcy case, Dubin said. For work that the law firm does for both the city and the county, the county will pay half.

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