Measure would reduce open-space fees for Balto. Co. developers

The Baltimore County Council could vote next week to reduce fees that developers pay to help the county build parks and buy recreational land.

A council resolution would lower — in some cases by nearly 90 percent — so-called open-space waiver fees. A vote is set for May 23.

Under county law, developers must set aside land for recreation or open space when they build housing developments. But since 2000, the county has allowed developers to pay cash into a fund instead of preserving land, if approved by the county's director of parks and recreation. The county has used the money to acquire land and improve parks at various sites.

Supporters of the resolution say the county has not adjusted the fees to reflect changing land values. The Home Builders Association of Maryland had lobbied for reductions.

"This hasn't been done in seven years," said Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat and sponsor of the resolution, during the council's Tuesday work session. "I just think it's something that's long overdue to be looked at."

A few months ago, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed lowering the fees, but withdrew the legislation before the council discussed it.

According to the county, the highest level of fees collected was in 2006, about $1.1 million. The least was in 2012, when it collected about $49,000.

The fees vary by zoning classification. In some zoning categories, fees would be cut by nearly 90 percent under the resolution. Other reductions begin at more than 30 percent. The proposed new fees were based on an analysis by the Real Estate Compliance division of the county's Permits, Approvals and Inspections Department.

The measure is also sponsored by council members Todd Huff, a Lutherville Republican; and Democrats Cathy Bevins of Middle River and Kenneth Oliver of Randallstown.

The same council members, along with Perry Hall Republican David Marks, sponsored another bill to require periodic review of the fees. That bill also would increase the proportion of fees given to NeighborSpace, a nonprofit that preserves open space in the county's urban neighborhoods by working with communities to acquire land that can be protected from development. Under current law, the organization gets up to 10 percent of the fees collected. The bill would increase that to a guaranteed 15 percent.

Council Chairman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat, and Marks are sponsoring another measure that would require the county planning board to devise a formula for setting the fees. Quirk said it would help the county devise "calculations that are fair and transparent for everyone."

NeighborSpace executive director Barbara Hopkins said her organization supports that proposal, but has not taken a position on the legislation to lower fees.

"The problem is bigger than just a fee," she said, adding that the county needs a broad look at how a lack of open space can affect people's health, hurt property values and damage the environment.

Marks said he wants more information on how county officials arrived at their calculations.

"There's a general consensus that the value of land in some areas may have dropped over the past six or seven years," he said. "The only question is the scale of the reduction in the proposed fees. Those are very substantial reductions. ... I'm still very interested in the process that's led to these calculations."

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