Rezoning Carroll: County staff seeking feedback on rezoning effort

The Carroll County Department of Planning is two years into a comprehensive rezoning project, examining and updating how properties are classified and where different uses are allowed.

It’s a process that hasn’t been taken up since the Lyndon Johnson administration, as the new, dedicated website, points out, and people may well have questions.


And the planning department wants to hear them, according to Interim Director Lynda Eisenberg, which is why she was at the South Carroll Senior and Community Center on Thursday evening, taking questions and walking people through the planning process — the third of five such meetings, each held in one of the five county commissioner districts.

“The role of these meetings is as a kick-off to this rezoning effort and to get the word out,” Eisenberg said. “To actually solicit feedback.”

The meeting itself, the direct mailings that preceded it and the website are in part responses to earlier feedback — one of the criticism leveled by both community members and members of government at the Freedom Comprehensive Plan process over the last two years was that the community was not engaged by officials in making planning decisions. Eisenberg, who took over as interim director after the departure of former director of planning Phil Hager in July, said in an interview that she wanted to direct the comprehensive rezoning effort a bit differently.

“Many of the plans since I have been here have been somewhere in some sort of process and we have not had that luxury of starting something form beginning,” she said. “This code is this staff’s opportunity to start from the beginning, and part of that beginning is getting the public involved and sending out those direct mailings to engage the citizens.”

Many of the roughly 20 people who came to Thursday’s meetings expressed appreciation for that engagement effort. Beth Gray, from Eldersburg, said she felt the communication channels had greatly improved since the Freedom Plan process a year ago.

“I think it’s a very good thing. I was really, really pleased to see the postcards go out,” Gray said. “I know it’s expensive, but it has to be in the budget when it’s something major and important like this.”

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John Patterson, also from Eldersburg, said that he felt the meeting on the rezoning effort was a big improvement and drew a sharp contrast with the Freedom Plan process.

We had a map dropped in front of us and were told, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ without any questions or consideration of what the community thought about it,” he said. “All we ask is for an open dialogue every step of the way.”

Patterson said he also liked the fact that Eisenberg and other planning staff were on hand to walk them through the comprehensive rezoning project step-by-step.

“What precipitated this was really the adoption of the County Master Plan in 2015,” Eisenberg said. That plan made a number of recommendations, among them was to update the county’s zoning code.

“We are looking at the text portion of the zoning code looking to update and modernize the code,” Eisenberg said. “And what I mean by modernization is not only the [land uses], but the use table format to make it much easier and user friendly.”

The table format is a table of different zoning categories that allows people to tell at a glance if a particular use, say, a gas station, or a doctor’s office, are allowed in a particular zoning district, rather than having to read through the zoning text itself. Planning staff brought a large example poster of a stable with proposed zoning changes to Thursday’s meeting, and those interested can view it and the text of proposed zoning changed, on the website.

“This will be easier to use for the layperson, where you don’t have to be a professional land use attorney or surveyor to be able to understand our code and what you can and can’t do,” Eisenberg said.

The rezoning process is proceeding in several stages. First will be the review and alterations to the text of the zoning code, Eisenberg said, with that also breaking down into phases: Right now, the planning department is working on commercial and industrial zoning categories, and asking the public for feedback.


Major changes proposed include converting the county’s current, two-tiered commercial zoning, the less intensive use Business Neighborhood Retail (B-NR), and the more intensive use Business General (B-G), into three districts: Commercial Low (C-1), Commercial Medium (C-2) and Commercial High (C-3).

“What we have attempted to do is to take the lower end of B-NR and make that our commercial low,” Eisenberg said. “Then taking the more intense stuff of B-NR and the less intense stuff of B-G and making that your middle district, and then a lot of the more intense uses of the B-G, and even some industrial that we do allow in our current B-G, having that in our higher commercial district.”

The heavier use Industrial General (I-G) district has also had its name changed to I-2 Heavy Industrial, and the lighter use industrial district, Restricted Industrial (I-R), changed to I-1, Light Industrial.

Those changes are still just proposals, Eisenberg says. Once staff uses public feedback to craft the best set of proposed zoning changes they can, the changes will be sent to the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission for review. If that body votes to approve them, they will be sent to the Board of County Commissioners to hold a public meeting and possibly make changes. The commissioners can also vote to adopt the new commercial and industrial zoning text.

Then the process, including public meetings will repeat, but for residential zoning categories, Eisenberg said, and after that the process will turn to the actual zoning maps, where these new zoning districts apply on the ground. None of the changes will actually be in effect on the ground until after the map phase is complete, she said.

It is not expected to be a quick process.

“If everything goes well, we are hoping for the next 12 months, for the text portion,” Eisenberg said. “But the whole process? I would definitely say 24 months before we are complete.”


Sooner would be nicer, she said, but there is no rush.

“We want to take our time to vet this with the public,” Eisenberg said. “We want to make sure there is a clear understanding of how it’s moving forward.”

This was in evidence Thursday evening. Several people asked about planned commercial land use, and whether there was enough road infrastructure to support those plans. Eisenberg pointed out that those issues were being addressed in the Freedom Plan, which is still being worked over a second time by the planning commission, and that the zoning map portion of the rezoning process is still to come.

“This particular code effort is looking at the text,” she said at the meeting. “No map has been approved … nothing has been rezoned.”

Another person asked about how the Freedom Plan and the comprehensive rezoning maps would come together, and if they would, eventually. County Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, who represents a portion of the Freedom area and was in the audience, answered that the two efforts would come together, and be better, in his opinion, for having done the rezoning first.

“If you create a plan that has new land use definitions and zoning, but the land use definitions and zoning are undefined, then the plan is meaningless,” he said in an interview. “We will define these things and then finish up the Freedom Plan.

Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, who represents most of the Freedom area, pointed out that the Freedom Plan is not on hold and will likely be finished before the comprehensive rezoning process. However, he said the county is following the right sequence by making progress on rezoning before completing the Freedom Plan process.

“When we do get the Freedom Plan back in front of us, we will have a much clearer idea of where zoning is going,” Howard said.

Pete Lester Sr., an Eldersburg resident, suggested at the meeting that the county consider adding a public facilities zoning district for schools, libraries, parks and other community resources.

“Before you can repurpose those as community properties, I would like there to be a step where the community gets to chime in and the county can’t just say, “It’s zoned commercial, so we are going to knock the school down, sell it to a developer and he’s going to come in and put in a mall,’” Lester said.

Eisenberg pointed out that such a change would be more of a policy decision, and something that would be best address by the commissioners, rather than the planning department, which is acting on the recommendations for zoning that were approved by the commissioners in the 2015 County Master Plan.

Rothschild agreed with Lester’s idea, but suggested a different solution.

“I think Pete’s proposal is in the right ballpark, but not the right pitcher’s mound,” he said.

Public facilities, Rothschild noted, could include something like a detention center, which he said he suspects people looking to preserve the character of a neighborhood around a school would not want next door. Instead he suggested the county rezone schools and libraries to “Residential friendly, low impact, alternative impact,” which would only allow uses that are substantially similar to the prior use of the public facility.

“The acid test for whether something would be permitted would be, can you tell from the outside of the building that it is not a school?” Rothschild said. “If the answer is no, why not allow it?”

But even that zoning change might not achieve what Rothschild and Lester would like.

Eisenberg said that when it comes to county property, zoning does not constrain what a future Board of Commissioners could do with a parcel of land if a school or library were closed. She understands that people want assurances that their community will not change drastically under them, but said that zoning is not the vehicle to achieve that end.

“When it comes to the practicality, that’s not how the process works,” Eisenberg said in an interview.

Howard agreed.

“The county has the authority to do what it wants with a piece of property, regardless of zoning,” he said in an interview.

At the same time, he said, he would like to have some sort of public process to allow people to weigh in before a property that held a public facility was changed drastically, and would not be opposed to the public facility zoning category as a gesture.

“Right now it’s not something the planning commission is incorporating into the plan,” he said. “But I think it’s a discussion I would like to have.”