For the past 20 years, the development process in Baltimore County has been inexorably stacked against people living in affected communities. Now that the county council has approved landmark zoning reform, a balance between private-sector interests and public concerns has been struck.
Under the old system, a builder had to gain approval for a project from the County Review Group in Towson. All that was required, however, was that the developer met minimum technical standards. More subjective concerns, such as whether a project was compatible with the character of the community, whether it would cause traffic problems or storm runoff problems, for example, fell outside the purview of the CRG, and as such carried little weight.
The new plan, to take effect March 2, corrects this inequity by requiring developers to meet with affected community groups before the formal approval process begins -- giving residents an opportunity to voice concerns and giving the builder and neighbors a chance to hammer out differences.
The new plan also abolishes the much-criticized CRG and puts in its place a hearing officer (the zoning commissioner or deputy) with the power to take "quality" issues, which would have been off-limits in the CRG process, into account when granting or denying project approval. The hearing officer also will be permitted to impose conditions under which development can go forward to address community concerns.
As with the original procedure, an aggrieved party may appeal the decision. Under the old scheme, however, a disgruntled neighborhood group had virtually no chance of winning. A CRG decision could be reversed only if the Board of Appeals found the decision arbitrary, capricious or obtained by fraud. The new process broadens the appeals board's power so communities have a better chance of altering development plans when there is a valid, albeit "non-technical," objection.
The new system won't allow community groups to halt development, as some builders have charged, nor will it allow developers to move forward without sufficient controls, as some community groups insist. Precisely because it is not weighed in favor of one group or the other, the new process will require an on-going, active role by citizens and a more responsive posture by developers. That's a win-win situation in our book.