Balto. Co. bill would protect Middle River Depot development in zoning fight

It would be easier to redevelop large, historic manufacturing sites in Baltimore County under legislation approved Monday by the County Council.

Under the bill, tracts of land 40 acres or larger that are zoned for heavy manufacturing and include buildings on the Maryland Historical Trust's historic properties list could be used for retail, office and residential development. Developers would not have to wait for the county rezoning process — which happens every four years — to turn such properties into mixed-use projects. They would have to preserve or reuse at least a portion of the historic building.

The legislation, introduced by Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, would protect the planned redevelopment of the vacant Middle River Depot — whose owners received mixed-use zoning approval this year — if a county referendum drive to challenge zoning votes is successful. The council passed the measure by a 6-0 vote, with Councilman Kenneth Oliver abstaining.

A group financed by firms tied to developers and shopping center owners is promoting the referendum effort, which would overturn all the council's zoning decisions made this year in Bevins' and Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond's districts — including the zoning vote that would allow Middle River Station Development LLC to build a mixed-use project at the depot site. The county elections board has not yet determined whether the referendum can appear on the 2014 ballot.

Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said abandoned manufacturing properties have become "blights on the community." The county has not been able to draw modern manufacturers to some sites, and historic designations can make it difficult for developers to reinvent them, she said.

"It's just a constant reminder of the jobs that were lost in the area," she said before the council meeting, adding that developers would still have to follow all current county regulations for mixed-use projects.

Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat, said he abstained from the vote "because it has an implication for the referendum.

"The voters haven't decided," Oliver said.

He was the only council member to oppose retail zoning for the former Solo Cup plant in Owings Mills this year. That site, where a developer plans a shopping enter anchored by a Wegmans grocery store, is another property where the zoning could be overturned through a referendum. Bevins' office said it would not be affected by the bill that passed Monday.

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