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The Baltimore County Planning Board is considering a resolution by County Councilman David Marks to create a special overlay zoning district specifically for downtown Towson as the county’s urban center.
The Baltimore County Planning Board is considering a resolution by County Councilman David Marks to create a special overlay zoning district specifically for downtown Towson as the county’s urban center. (Davis, Amy / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore County Planning Board is considering a resolution by County Councilman David Marks to create a special overlay zoning district specifically for downtown Towson as the county's urban center.

The county's Master Plan 2020 calls for making the downtown core a more walkable commercial center that encourages compatible mixed-use projects and promotes redevelopment opportunities. However, "legislative efforts designed to achieve those goals have been enacted in a piecemeal fashion," through numerous amendments to the county's existing CT (Commercial, Town Center Core) zoning district since 1993, the resolution states.

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The proposed Towson Urban Center or TUC overlay district would be design-oriented — aimed specifically at "refining the urban character of Towson" — and would give design guidelines for evaluating new development and redevelopment projects, according to a report by the county Planning Department, which is recommending the overlay district.

Surrounding neighborhoods would continue to use community conservation efforts as outlined in the 1992 Towson Community Plan.

According to the report, there are 10 separate zoning designations and overlay districts, including the Towson Community Plan, that apply to some part of Towson's urban center.

"An unintended consequence of the numerous planning processes has unfortunately resulted in the implementation if zoning and special regulations that are fragmented and often contradictory," the planning report states.

The overlay district would exempt development projects from suburban zoning regulations that govern setbacks, height, floor area ratio, density and parking, instead requiring a more intensive design review process, the report states. Developments in the overlay district would be subject to reviews by the county's Design Review Panel and a county administrative law judge. The Design Review Panel's recommendations would be non-binding on the administrative law judge hearing a case.

Since the 1990s, there have been 17 bills and four resolutions changing zoning regulations for downtown Towson, county planning officials told the Planning Board at its meeting Aug. 20, when the resolution was introduced to the board. Some height restrictions make no sense and zoning regulations need to be rewritten to reflect modern thinking about development and zoning, because many zoning regulations date to the 1960s, when they were written to govern shopping malls. Preferences have changed since then, and people are more interested in walkable urban centers, said Andrea Van Arsdale, director of the Department of Planning.

Marks told the Planning Board the overlay district is aimed at creating "a uniform set of zoning regulations (and) a zoning classification that's distinct to Towson."

State Del. Steve Lafferty, who served on the Planning Board in the 1990s, also testified in support of the resolution to create the overlay district, saying, "I'm a strong believer in using design as a way to guide (development) in any community."

But Lafferty said design itself is not sufficient and that factors such as height and mixed use must also be considered in evaluating projects.

Several members of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations urged the board to table consideration of the resolution until they have a chance to study it closely, while others like Wendy Jacobs of the West Towson Neighborhood Association said, "We want to see more clearly defined open space requirements," as well as requirements for restrained lighting in development projects.

Chris Mudd, an attorney representing Caves Valley Partners, developer of the proposed Towson Row project, called the proposed overlay district "a good start to bring together a lot of planning principles that have been in place for decades."

The Greater Towson Committee, which supports "well-designed" development projects in the downtown core, said in a letter to the Planning Board that it supports making previously adopted urban design guidelines part of the new overlay district regulations, and also supports "elimination of multiple overlay districts that now cloud the core of Towson."

However, the Greater Towson Committee also wants more information about making the Design Review Panel's decisions non-binding, and wants to talk to GTC members, especially property owners, about the proposed boundary map for the overlay district.

"The goal is ultimately to provide a boundary that enhances the potential development of the core and protects the residential communities and buffered areas of Towson," GTC Executive Director Katie Chasney Pinheiro said in the Aug. 20 letter.

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