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Catonsville residents urge changes to promote commercial development

John "Jack" Murphy speaks in support of a resolution before the Baltimore County Council requesting an evaluation of the development regulations in the county's 16 commercial revitalization districts during a council work session on April 15.
John "Jack" Murphy speaks in support of a resolution before the Baltimore County Council requesting an evaluation of the development regulations in the county's 16 commercial revitalization districts during a council work session on April 15. (Staff photo by Lauren Loricchio)

An effort to attract investment to the commercial corridors of Baltimore County is underway and three Catonsville residents made the trip to Towson last week in support of the action.

The three spoke in favor of a resolution sponsored by 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents the Catonsville and Arbutus area, that could result in a change to the laws regarding the county's 16 commercial revitalization districts, central economic hubs of communities, at a Baltimore County Council work session on Tuesday.

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The resolution asks the Baltimore County Planning Board to study the basic services maps that regulate transportation and infrastructure of the 16 districts.

Basic services maps determine zoning for infrastructure such as water and sewer systems, traffic and transportation.

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Those who spoke in support of the resolution said current regulations are hindering development of the 16 commercial revitalization districts in the county, which include Arbutus, Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville and Lansdowne.

"We've come a long way with our commercial revitalization districts...and we're looking for other ways as well," Quirk said on April 15 to the group. "And so we're asking the Planning Board to look at making recommendations for how we can continue to improve our older, urban commercial corridors."

Businesses that invest in the districts are eligible for the following through a current county program:

• 10 free hours of architectural design service for the exterior of buildings,

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• a $30,000 interest-free loan that can be used toward the exterior improvement of buildings,

• a five-year real property tax credit

• a $10,000 grant awarded to business associations for projects that benefit the district overall.

But more needs to be done, according to residents such as John "Jack" Murphy, a Catonsville attorney and former Baltimore County councilman from 1974 to 1978, to foster development in those areas.

Murphy said he'd like to see basic services limitations eliminated from the districts, as well as a new process of decision making, a revision to district uses and special design standards established for older communities.

Murphy said he was part of the council when regulations were first implemented to "slow residential development at the fringe of development until the county's [infrastructure] was able to accommodate new residents."

Those regulations are now outdated and should be revised, he said.

"[Commercial revitalization districts are] just so unique and so different than the general development process," Murphy said.

Klaus Philipsen, an architect who specializes in commercial revitalization, said ordinances are often used by communities as a "smoke-screen against development."

"We want to make it easier to invest in these areas, but we want to maintain control over how it feels and how it looks," said the Catonsville resident. "So the point of this discussion is to throw out regulations that block investment, but force investments to be good."

Philipsen said he hopes new development policies will encourage quality investments in the area that will increase the value of communities.

"In a village center, the more stuff you put there — the more people and services — the better it gets," Philipsen said.

Philipsen explained that development should occur in areas near a town center rather than in open green spaces.That centralization reduces traffic congestion and promotes walkability of communities.

Scott Graham, co-chairman of the Catonsville 2020 group that sought to improve the Frederick Road business corridor, said basic services maps, which outline zoning regulations, have been barriers to commercial revitalization.

Graham said he'd like to see the legislation that was adopted for commercial zoning in Towson applied for commercial revitalization districts throughout the county.

"We would like for you to think about maybe replicating that Towson-like legislation for all [16] revitalization areas in the county," Graham said to the council. "I would suggest that if we offer more flexibility to that process, it will attract more developers. They will not have to go through an expensive and time consuming process...and they'll be more willing to step up to the plate and invest their money."

Graham said, "We want to move away from traffic oriented kinds of situations and make it a more user friendly community."

Catonsville resident Paul Dongarra, who co-owns Dionysus' Kitchen, a catering business with a commercial kitchen in Arbutus, said he believes the redevelopment of commercial corridors is good.

"I applaud the councilman that he's willing to explore this," Dongarra said. "But the process needs to be transparent."

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