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York Road is seen looking south near the Beltway. Baltimore County's next comprehensive rezoning process could impact the fast growing Towson area.
York Road is seen looking south near the Beltway. Baltimore County's next comprehensive rezoning process could impact the fast growing Towson area. (Algerina Perna/The Baltimore Sun)

Protecting Towson from perceived overdevelopment and creating more open space in the area are major considerations for communities as Baltimore County begins its comprehensive rezoning process this summer.

"I respect property rights and the need for landowners to sell or develop their land if they choose to do so — but we need to consider impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, as well as the cost of paying for road and schools," County Councilman David Marks wrote in his July newsletter to his constituents, alerting them that the rezoning effort will soon get under way.

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Marks states in the newsletter that his office initiated the downzoning of more than 417 acres "to protect our communities from overdevelopment — including the most land every downzoned in Towson, Carney and the Cromwell Valley."

Now, the county is preparing to start a year-long Comprehensive Zoning Map Process to determine the development potential of properties countywide, as the county does every four years. The council will vote in September 2016 on what properties to rezone. Two public hearings will be scheduled as part of the CZMP.

"People want to make sure the development in downtown Towson doesn't spill over into established neighborhoods," Marks said.

Zoning and rezoning decisions dictate whether an agriculturally zoned property becomes eligible for commercial development, or how dense a housing subdivision or townhouse project can be, for example, Marks says in his newsletter.

The county last undertook the rezoning process in 2012, when the community successfully fought proposed zoning changes that would have allowed retail development west of Bosley Avenue, Marks said.

"We blocked intense changes along Bosley Avenue last time, and I suspect we will be watching for proposals this time," he said.

Marks said the council in 2012 also created open space zoning for government-owned land and homeowner association-owned properties, approving legislation that he sponsored.

"I suspect there will be more properties we may want to add in 2016," he said.

'Immense pressure'

The Greater Towson Committee, a group that according to its website promotes investment in Towson through development and the revitalization of property and infrastructure, "looks forward to working with the (county) Department of Planning, Planning Board and
the County Council on this very important public process," said Katie Chasney Pinheiro, executive director of the committee.

The committee has been working on projects like the proposed Towson circulator, and "wiIl continue to promote alternative modes of transportation to benefit Towson's thriving development community and the residents of Towson," Pinheiro said in an email.  "As always, we will continue to work to ensure the success and revitalization of Towson through smart growth and development."

The Greater Towson Council of Community Associations is bracing for a lot of expected requests from commercial property owners "to dramatically upzone their investment properties," by seeking increased, often higher-density use, said Mike Ertel, president of the umbrella group.

"Many property owners will put immense pressure on our (county) council persons to upzone their properties during the CZMP," Ertel predicted in an email. Communities successfully fought several such attempts during the 2012 CZMP process, including one to add residential towers and retail — without a wooded buffer — to a traditional three-story apartment complex on Kenilworth Drive, near single-family-homes, he said.

"No neighborhood is immune to a CZMP request," Ertel said. "These requests boil down to a quality-of-life balance for our neighborhoods and the real estate investor who wants maximum flexibility to build to the 'nth degree' next to our homes."

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According to the county government's website, the CZMP is updated every four years and the council decides whether to retain or change the existing zoning on any property or swath of properties that come up for discussion. Those that aren't at issue are left as is.

"Any citizen may request a zoning change on any property in the county, although the usual participants in the process are individual landowners, contract purchasers, community organizations, county staff, the Planning Board and the County Council," the government website states.

"The GTCCA's focus tends to be on upzone requests of properties that are adjacent to or inside neighborhoods," Ertel said. "Often, the individual neighborhoods find themselves faced with a process they have little knowledge of."

Ertel said his group "attempts to educate and shepherd each neighborhood association through the process and give them our umbrella's support."

The open application filing period for the public to suggest changes is Sept. 1-Oct. 15, followed by similar filing periods for the county Planning Board and director and the County Council. Then, the planning staff will review the suggestions and make recommendations by the end of February, 2016, and the Planning Board will hold public hearings in March, followed by council public hearings in June.

Although the filing period doesn't officially start until September, potential applicants can start giving the Planning Department pre-application information later this summer, via an online "electronic portal," so that the department can start scheduling interviews in September, according to Deputy Director of Planning Jeff Mayhew.

"It gives us a way to manage our time and manage your time," Mayhew said.

As applications are filed, they will be posted and mapped on a county website for the public to view, as part of an official "log of issues" that the Planning Department ultimately will compile, Mayhew said.

Push-pull

As for what issues or themes county planners expect to see this time around, "It's hard to tell until we get the issues in front of us," Mayhew said. "Up to now, I haven't heard any themes that I would be able to characterize."

But he said that in the past, there has been "a push-pull" in rural parts of the county between those who want to develop high-density housing and those who want to leave the land zoned as is or reduce density.

That conflict has been evident in more urban areas of the county, too, he said.

In Towson's fast-developing downtown core, "I could see the business community asking for more commercial (zoning)," he said, as well as applications to use existing commercial zones for a more "intense" use.

But he said, "We'll have to see. Nobody's coming in and telling us yet."

"Personally," said Ertel, "I dread the CZMP every four years, as it is very taxing for the neighborhood associations when there are usually multiple requests from commercial property owners to dramatically upzone their investment properties."

For more information, call 410-887-3480 or go to http://www.baltimorecounty.gov/agencies.planning/zoning/czmp2016 or use the county's online mapping tool, called My Neighborhood, at http://myneighborhood.baltimorecountymd.gov.

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