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Upcoming zoning vote will set parameters for downtown Towson's future development

The Towson Triangle, which includes the Towson American Legion Post property, shown, has been the subject of a rezoning request as part of the county's quardennial Comprehesive Zoning Map Process.
The Towson Triangle, which includes the Towson American Legion Post property, shown, has been the subject of a rezoning request as part of the county's quardennial Comprehesive Zoning Map Process. (File Photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The Towson Triangle, considered by neighboring communities to be a dividing line between them and downtown Towson, will not get the increased zoning density some developers have sought during the county's quadrennial zoning process, if the Baltimore County Council agrees with Councilman David Marks in a vote scheduled for Aug. 30.

Every four years the county hears requests to change the current zoning of properties — thereby changing what can or can't be built on those properties — from residents, business owners and elected officials. The requests first come before the Baltimore County Department of Planning, which issues a recommendation on each. The Planning Board then reviews the requests and holds a public hearing on them, after which the board issues its recommendations.

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The County Council issues a final decision regarding the requests. This summer, the council held seven public hearings on more than 600 zoning requests countywide — including 161 in County Council District 5, which includes Towson. The council will vote on those requests next Tuesday, Aug. 30, thereby creating the county's zoning map for the next four years.

Last week, residents from the Towson Manor Village community brought up concerns about two proposed zoning changes on properties that lie within the Towson Triangle, which is bordered by Bosley Avenue, York Road and Towsontown Boulevard. The American Legion, located inside the triangle, has requested a more dense zoning for about 9 acres of land in the triangle that includes property it owns along with that owned by the county and state.

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In addition, Towson-based developer DMS Development has proposed a change to 2.62 acres inside the triangle, asking for denser zoning that would allow the company to build a larger development in the triangle than current zoning allows. In 2013, DMS submitted plans to the county for a student housing complex called 101 York to be built on the parcel. According to DMS Development's website, the project would include 248 apartment for 610 students, as well as a four levels of parking.

Challenges to aspects of a preliminary development plan for the 101 York site, which a county administrative law judge approved in 2015, are now being appealed to the state's second highest appellate court.

Officials of the Towson Manor Village Community Association conducted an emergency meeting Aug. 17 because Marks hadn't yet issued opinions on the proposals from the Legion and DMS. Residents expressed concerns about the size of the 101 York project and the expansion of downtown-style zoning into the triangle.

Marks, who was unable to attend the meeting, said at the time he was waiting for a mediation on the project to be completed before making a decision on whether he would support DMS's rezoning request.

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That mediation was unsuccessful, and on Wednesday Marks said that he is in favor of denying the rezoning requests of the Legion and DMS. Officials of DMS Development declined to comment; an attorney for the American Legion said last week that the group had no comment when asked generally about the Legion's request.

Joe La Bella, president of the Towson Manor Village Community Association, said Wednesday he was happy with Marks' decision.

"This is a great victory but it does not resolve the overall issues that we've been fighting from the beginning," La Bella said.

Greater Towson Committee Executive Director Katie Pinheiro wasn't happy with the decision. According to the group's website, Greater Towson Committee "promotes investment in Towson through development and revitalization." The proposed denser zoning in the triangle would have been an opportunity for revitalization, Pinheiro said.

The triangle is a "gateway" to downtown Towson, she said, and right now, it's an eyesore.

"We feel that the triangle is the most underdeveloped and underutilized section of Towson," she said.

If approved by the full council, Marks' request to maintain the current zoning on the 101 York property would leave the student housing complex where it now resides — in the hands of the appellate courts.

The DMS proposal was submitted as a planned unit development, or PUD, in 2013, meaning the project could be built outside of zoning standards so long as it provides a community benefit. Some developments are required to include open space by the county. When that isn't possible, developers ask for an open space waiver, for which a fee is assessed.

The preliminary development plan that DMS submitted to the county is subject to $1.36 million in open space fees, as determined by the administrative law judge's approval in 2015, according to county documents. The judge issued an order approving the development subject to the requirement that the developer pay the open space fee, restrict the housing to undergraduate or graduate students, and that it not build a tavern or nightclub on the property.

DMS has appealed the open space fee on grounds that it is incorrect. The Greater Towson Council of Community Associations also appealed the judge's decision, with the goal of seeking a smaller-scale mixed use project for the site.

The community association group is represented by lawyer Brian Murphy, who also represents a small business partnership that owns the Jiffy Lube, which is next door to the proposed DMS development, and is a co-litigant in the case.

Those appeals are currently in the state's Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis, according to Murphy. A mediation between the parties was held Aug. 16 in an attempt to settle the case; the mediation was unsuccessful, according to Murphy.

Marks wants the legal process to play out in deciding the outcome of DMS's development proposal, he said Wednesday.

The Planning Board has recommended the council approve DMS's rezoning request. If the council sides with the Planning Board and against Marks, the development can move forward without the need for continued litigation — the new zoning would allow the proposed use by right. If the council sides with Marks, the developer would need to continue its legal fight.

Goucher College's request

In addition to the rezoning requests in the triangle, Goucher College has requested zoning to allow denser development of an 8.62-acre portion of its campus, near Towson Town Center mall. The county Planning Board has recommended approving Goucher's request.

The request has raised concern from the college's neighbors, who said that college officials hadn't informed them what they planned to do with the property. In July, Marks said he will support the college's rezoning request only if Goucher officials can reach an agreement with surrounding communities on the size and scope of the development.

Since that time, the school has released on its website a proposed design for a new complex on the parcel that would include residences, a conference center, garage and hotel. Space in the complex would be leased to generate income for the college.

"That plan will allow us to put out a request for proposals for developers who might want to lease the land, invest their own capital, and run the facilities," college President Jose Antonio Bowen said in a statement that accompanies the design online. "Many colleges have agreements like this for the same reasons. It provides annual income, preserves college assets, and gives the college an ongoing voice in how the land is used."

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In an email Thursday, Marks declined to say how he would vote on Goucher's proposal, adding that negotiations between surrounding communities, such as the nearby Edenwald Retirement Community, and college officials are still ongoing.

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"There is an issue regarding access to Southerly Drive that needs to be worked on," Marks said in the email.

Sander Wise, who represents the Edenwald Residents Association, but not the retirement community's administration, said Friday that time is growing short to reach a covenant, adding that the most important issue for the residents is how the development could impact traffic on Southerly Road.

"The development appears to be rather intense," Wise said. "We're fearful that unless steps are taken to limit it, we'll have more traffic than Southerly Road can handle."

In a statement issued Friday, Bowen said that Goucher "continues to make every effort to work in partnership with Edenwald and our other neighbors to come to an agreement regarding the rezoning plan."

Downtown Overlay District

The final piece to the zoning puzzle in Towson is officially deciding the boundaries of the Downtown Overlay District, which the County Council created earlier this month.

The new district will cover the traditional downtown area, bordered by Bosley Avenue, Fairmount Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard, Marks said in an email. If Goucher College is granted its zoning request, it also would be included in the new district, Marks added.

In describing the new district, Marks said it will have a "market-driven approach to parking requirements, and improves environmental, lighting, and connectivity standards." Proposed projects within the district's boundaries would also be subject to review by a panel made up of architects and other industry experts, and public input from citizens.

Critics of the new district have said they want to see more environmental protections and open space requirements on developments within it.

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