For months, community activists have argued that developers in Towson should be forced to do more to help the government buy and preserve parkland.
Now the Baltimore County Council plans to hear more from the public — and developers — on the matter.
The council will hold a public hearing Monday on the waiver fees that developers pay when they can't include the required amount of open space in their developments. The issue has drawn interest in Towson, the county seat that is booming with urban-style developments, where exceptions in the law often result in developers paying little or nothing in open-space fees.
"I think there is a general consensus that we need to do better in Towson, but the devil's in the details," said Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican who represents Towson.
Marks said he hopes to change the fees policy"sooner rather than later."
As in most jurisdictions, developers of projects in the county that include homes must include a certain amount of green space in the plans. If they can't fit in the required space — 1,000 square feet per unit — they can seek approval to pay a fee instead. The county uses the money to buy and improve parks and green spaces.
The fee schedule is complex, with different amounts charged for different zoning districts. The fees are limited in downtown districts — including Towson — and are not charged for student housing projects.
As a result, the Towson area is potentially missing out on millions of dollars in open-space waiver fees, according to community activists. The Greater Towson Council of Community Associations estimates that several proposed projects in Towson — including apartment complexes and the 1 million-square-foot mixed-use Towson Row — would be on the hook for a combined $5 million if the fee exemptions weren't in place.
"The 'no open space fees' [policy] can't continue. It's gone on too long," said Janine Schofield, president of the Towson Recreation Council, which plans to bring scores of families Monday for a rally and to testify at the hearing.
Schofield said the Towson area lacks parks and ball fields, forcing the recreation council to rent fields elsewhere to accommodate youth sports teams. If the county had more money from developers, it could add fields or better maintain existing fields, she said.
Towson Rec families have been among the most vocal proponents of changing the fees. Schofield said it's been frustrating that the county's Planning Board declined to take a position on the fees and that County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has backed a staff report that suggests making no changes to the fees.
"Everyone's passing the issue on to someone else rather than fixing it," Schofield said. "It's really unfortunate."
The administration's report says the fees should be kept the same because they're based on the cost of buying land in different zoning categories. The report considered a flat fee to be used across the county, but concluded that would generate less money.
NeighborSpace, a nonprofit land preservation organization, disagrees with the report. It plans to propose a new fee schedule that's simpler with fewer exemptions. More developers would pay into the program, it says, generating more money.
NeighborSpace leaders have been meeting for months with officials from the Maryland Building Industries Associations to try to come up with a proposal. While the groups agreed on some details — such as the need for a predictable way to collect and spend the fees — they haven't agreed on specific dollar amounts.
Josh Greenfeld, vice president of government affairs for the building association, said his group is working with NeighborSpace, but declined to comment further.
Barbara Hopkins, executive director of NeighborSpace, said revisions to the open-space program, if done right, could result in more attractive communities that result in more profitable projects for developers.
"It's a win for everybody when you do these things well," she said.
County Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said she and her colleagues are inclined to make changes to the fees.
"We definitely think that there needs to be a different number," she said. "It's just what that number's going to be."