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Baltimore Co. Council approves growth bill 7-0 decision hailed in Towson


Baltimore County residents will have a much greater say in how growth affects their communities as a result of sweeping changes in the development process approved last night by the County Council.

The council voted 7-0 to approve the first major change in the process in a decade. The new laws include three key provisions that:

* Require developers to meet with affected community groups before beginning the approval process, a move designed to avoid unwelcome surprises and give residents and builders a chance to negotiate their differences.

* Allow a hearing officer to decide all zoning and development issues atone hearing. The officer can restrict developments based on compatibility with the existing neighborhood.

* Greatly broaden the authority of the Board of Appeals to change or reject developments approved by the hearing officer, giving communities a much better chance to alter or defeat a project they oppose.

Reaction from community and development interests was mixed, although most agree that the new system should help communities ward off or change unwelcome projects.

Wayne M. Skinner, president of the Towson-Loch Raven Community Council, an umbrella group representing about 15 neighborhood associations, said the changes will help.

"The community input meeting will allow the community and the developer to work out any problems before the county begins the approval process," Mr. Skinner said.

Stuart D. Kaplow, a development attorney who has been closely monitoring the council's deliberations on the changes, said they "are certainly not pro-development."

Carroll Holzer, an attorney who often represents community groups opposing developers, disagreed. He said the new rules will speed things up for builders, adding "nothing would be worse than what we have now."

Pressure for the new laws has been building as the development battlegrounds have changed in the county. In the 1960s and '70s, thebig fights were over how land should be zoned. Now, the battles are over what will be built and how it will affect the surrounding communities after zoning has been decided.

Further pressure has come from a growth-management strategy that encourages builders to use vacant land in older communities. Plans for town houses or luxury homes in those communities have aroused opposition among those worried about traffic, storm runoff and compatibility.

Residents also have been frustrated for years with the County Review Group, a two-person committee that has been used since 1982 to process all development plans. By law, the review group must approve any project that meets technical standards. As a result, residents often felt that their objections were ignored.

Even more frustrating was the legal presumption of correctness that went with review group approvals. That limited the Board of Appeals to reversing decisions only if they were found to have been arbitrary, capricious, or obtained by fraud.

Under the new system, a builder would have to meet with community groups at the start of the process to outline what is planned. Some builders fear that, since specific details of a project may not be worked out yet at that stage, residents may be suspicious and later claim bad faith.

After the community meeting, the builder has up to one year to file a formal development plan with the county. Once the plan is filed, however, a hearing will be scheduled within 30 days.

A decision must be issued within 15 days of the hearing. Both sides will then have 30 days to appeal to the Board of Appeals.

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