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Activists hold colorful signs outside the Historic Courthouse in Towson Monday night as part of a rally coordinated by the Green Towson Alliance. Those at the rally called for more green space in Towson as downtown is rezoned and redeveloped.
Activists hold colorful signs outside the Historic Courthouse in Towson Monday night as part of a rally coordinated by the Green Towson Alliance. Those at the rally called for more green space in Towson as downtown is rezoned and redeveloped. (Staff Photo / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Community members gathered outside the Historic Courthouse in Towson Monday night to rally for more green areas ahead of two separate County Council meetings that night centered on how Towson would be zoned and redeveloped in the future.

Led by the Green Towson Alliance, a local environmental group, a small group of people carried signs with slogans such as "make Towson beautiful" and "just say 'no' to the concrete jungle." Sen. Jim Brochin, County Councilman David Marks, and Del. Steve Lafferty addressed the crowd.

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"The mission is that we can't let Towson be sold off to developers," Brochin said. "We have to take the key back from developers because they have the key to Towson right now."

Brochin advocated keeping Towson from becoming "pure concrete." Lafferty said Towson needed a zoning plan that includes green spaces, adding that he supported a proposal to rewrite Towson's zoning laws submitted by Marks.

Marks, who represents Towson, continues to work on a bill to create an overlay district in downtown Towson. He began work on the legislation last year, in response to a comprehensive review completed by the county of existing zoning laws in Towson. Four community meetings were held on the subject, and in early May, Marks introduced the legislation.

Developers in booming downtown Towson will pay greater fees when they can't include required green space in their projects under a plan approved by the Baltimore County Council Monday night..

At the rally, Marks said he hoped that the proposal would move forward in the County Council.

"I hope we can find a consensus for a greener Towson," Marks said.

An overlay district, as it sounds, is placed over existing zoning. A confusing combination of multiple zones, which now exist, is one reason he is suggesting the zoning change, Marks said. The bill would consolidate into one 10 separate districts and zoning designations that currently govern development in Towson.

The overlay district would unbind development projects from suburban zoning regulations that govern setbacks, height, floor area ratio, density and parking, and instead require a more intensive design review process. Developments in the overlay district would be subject to review by the county's Design Review Panel.

The proposed overlay district would emphasize connectivity between buildings, preservation of trees and planting of new foliage, distinctive architectural features, tougher standards to minimize light pollution, and tougher standards for signage on tall buildings, among other requirements, according to Marks.

Several community groups have debated the bill's provisions. In a May 13 letter to the Towson Times, members of the Greater Towson Committee stated that, while the group supports special zoning for downtown, its members believe that Marks' bill as proposed doesn't provide enough "flexibility needed for urban development" in Towson. As introduced, the bill makes navigating zoning rules more complicated, not less, Greater Towson Committee Executive Director Kate Pinero said.

Members of the Green Towson Alliance, however, say that some requirements are necessary to ensure a "livable, walkable," downtown Towson.

Marks hopes the council will vote on the bill in July, after amendments are made in an effort to find more common agreement.

After the rally, Brochin spoke about how the overlay bill could be expanded to include already approved developments, such as Towson Row.

"They could make it all under this bill, rather than grandfathering it all in," Brochin said. "It's a huge difference."

In addition to its 6 p.m. session, the council was scheduled to conduct a separate public hearing at 7 p.m. to take public testimony on more than 100 proposed changes to zoning on individual lots in councilmanic District 5, which includes Towson, under the county's comprehensive rezoning process. Once every four years anyone can request a zoning change for any property in the county. While any citizen can request a change, most organizations that submit requests include landowners, council members, county staff or community organizations.

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The newly formed Green Towson Alliance is bringing surrounding neighborhoods together to draw attention to the need for more trees and open space — and to have a say in Baltimore County's development approval process.

This past winter, the planning department made recommendations on each request; this spring the county's Planning Board also made recommendations on the proposals. With those suggestions in mind, the County Council will have the final say on which individual properties will be rezoned in the district.

The District 5 hearing is the first of seven the council will hold on comprehensive rezoning this June. The council will vote on the zoning changes during a special meeting Aug. 30.

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