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As development spreads, tension grows in Towson Builders battle plan to place checks on growth

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A 60-page proposal circulating in the Baltimore County Courthouse has spawned one lawsuit, attracted 200 people to a public hearing, prompted an intensive lobbying effort to defeat it and inspired descriptions that range from "creative" to "dangerous."

The Towson Community Plan, more than two years in the making, sets guidelines on what type of buildings can be constructed, under what restrictions they can be built and exactly where they can be located in the bustling county seat.

The recommendations, by a subcommittee of the county's planning board, include a sweeping set of changes that are being attacked by builders and developers as stifling growth and praised by community groups as welcome relief from a decade of rapid development.

"All the Towson communities are in support of this plan," said Sue Schenning, past president of the Southland Hills Community Association.

"It doesn't stop growth, but it supports a vision of what the communities want for Towson."

"The developers have had total control and things have been out of control for four to eight years," said Jo Ann Holback, a Towson community activist who lost her fight to prevent construction of Towson Commons, a 10-story office and retail complex due to open on York Road next April.

"With this plan, I think we have a nice compromise," she said.

"I think it's going to safeguard the community," said Leroy Haile, a Towson real estate broker.

But developers have begun an intensive lobbying campaign to modify the plan.

They are meeting with County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th; Stephen W. Lafferty, who chaired the planning board's Towson subcommittee; staff planners; and the county administration in an effort to change proposed restrictions they say amount to a moratorium on construction.

"It's a reversal of the direction we've followed over the past 20 years," said Les Graef, executive director of the Towson Development Corp., a group of about 100 businesses and professional groups that opposes the plan.

He said that zoning codes to promote development in Towson go back to 1968 and were reinforced in a 1979 Growth Management Plan that targeted Towson as an area for growth and economic revitalization.

"What's happening with this is we're sending a signal that Towson is no longer a place that's receptive" to development, Mr. Graef said.

The plan calls for ending the exemption granted to property owners in Towson a decade ago that has let them win county approval for projects without first showing there were adequate basic services -- such as roads.

That's important because traffic engineers have classified York Road and Burke Avenue as a failing intersection, so that under the basic services requirement, York Road would have to be widened before any development could occur nearby, county officials say.

Robert L. Hannon, senior vice president of MacKenzie and Associates, a property management development company, said that means the basic services requirement essentially places a moratorium on development because improvements to York Road are years away.

Developers also fear that with the opening of the 200-store expanded Towson Town Center mall on Dulaney Valley and Joppa roads next month, and the opening of the $70 million Towson Commons complex in April, traffic will increase and other intersections along York Road could be classified as failing.

"What we're saying is, one, there's no money for road improvements, and two, the amount of time it would take to make the improvements would be a major problem," Mr. Hannon said.

"You're talking three to five years."

He argues that the plan will discourage development in Towson -- and chase it out to Hunt Valley and other northern Baltimore County communities where it may not be wanted.

Mr. Lafferty said that lobbying likely will translate into changes before the plan is approved.

"There's ongoing dialogue, and I think there's likely to be some modifications, both from the developers' side and from the residents' side," he said.

The planning board is reviewing the plan and is scheduled to vote on it Oct. 3.

It will then go to the County Council for review and a public hearing before final approval.

Robert A. DiCicco, an attorney for the fledgling Towson Property Owners Association, said that the group owns $15 million worth of property in a six-block corridor west of Bosley Avenue.

It stands to lose 30 percent to 50 percent of the value of the property if the plan is approved as written, he said.

"No one in our community was informed, and it just doesn't seem right for them to come out and change the zoning without consulting the people affected," Mr. DiCicco said.

Once a sleepy county seat, Towson has undergone a gradual transformation since the 1960s as the York Road shopping strip of low-rise buildings and residential neighborhoods along the side streets were dwarfed or replaced by office towers and commercial development. In the last 30 years, Towson's population has grown from 19,090 to 49,445.

Residents say that the plan reflects concerns that Towson could become overdeveloped, a home for vacant office space and half-empty skyscrapers.

Many say a key to the future of the downtown area will be the success of Towson Commons, a huge, 10-story office and retail complex on York Road and Pennsylvania and Chesapeake avenues that will offer eight movie screens, five restaurants, office space and dozens of shops and stores.

So far, only 7 percent of the 190,000 square feet of office space has been rented, and there has been no commitment for three of the five restaurant spaces.

"Now that it's going to be reality, we all want Towson Commons to work," said Mrs. Holback, vice president of the Knollwood-Donnybrook Association. "If it doesn't, we all stand to lose."

She said that the plan is not anti-development -- it just institutes reforms needed to keep development in check.

But developers don't see it that way. They argue that healthy development has spelled a healthy economic climate for Towson's businesses and its residential neighborhoods.

As proposed, the community plan would reverse that, they say.

"There are a lot of people with good incomes living in and around Towson, and many of them are there because of the health of the Towson business climate," Mr. Hannon said. "The fact is you have to have some trade-offs. You can't have these pristine residential communities right next to a business center that offers employment, without giving up something in return."

Goals of the Towson plan

Among the objectives set forth in the Towson Community Plan are:

* Eliminating all billboards in central Towson.

* Converting the old Baltimore County Jail on Bosley Avenue at Towsontown Boulevard into some type of community service facility, such as an arts center, day care center or senior citizen recreation center.

* Reducing by 27 percent the size of buildings permitted on commercial sites.

* Establishing height limits of 130 feet for commercial buildings and 160 feet for apartment buildings and condominiums.

* Setting up a Design Review Advisory Panel to review all projects proposed for downtown Towson and make recommendations to a zoning hearing officer who would have final say on approving building plans.

* Widening portions of York Road and Washington and Virginia )) avenues and erecting better signs and signals to ease the flow of traffic throughout Towson.

* Classifying residential areas as community conservation zones and placing restrictions on office developments in those areas.

These restrictions, which would prevent major exterior renovations to homes in residential communities that have been converted to professional offices, prompted a group of about 20 property owners to file a suit in Baltimore County Circuit Court Sept. 11 alleging that the plan robs them of the value of their property.

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