When Bonnie Dahbura saw the duplex on Falls Road, just north of the city line in Baltimore County, she thought it would make the perfect location for her interior design shop.
Although she knew the property, one of the first houses built on that congested segment of Falls Road, wasn't zoned for business, she decided she had to have it.
"You know how sometimes you walk into a place and you just know you love it? Well, I really loved it," said Dahbura, who with her husband, Anton, bought the house in 1991. "We bought it hoping to use it for our business. I do primarily residential work and have an interest in restoration and rehabilitation-type work. So the house had a lot of appeal to me."
In 1992, during the four-year comprehensive zoning process for Baltimore County, the Dahburas decided to try to get their home rezoned to allow for their interior design business.
They hired a lawyer at a cost of close to $6,000 to help them through the procedure. But in the end, their conversations with their neighbors fell on deaf ears and they were turned down.
When the process came around again in 1996, new neighbors had moved in. They gave it another shot and found success.
"The second time, we felt that we didn't have that much money to invest again [in a lawyer], so we did it ourselves and we were more fortunate," said Dahbura. "We talked to several of the neighbors and told them what we were planning to do.
"I think that it's easier for an individual than it would be for a large developer. I think sometimes [neighbors] can detect sincerity when you talk one on one," she said.
After meeting with community members, the Dahburas agreed to a covenant that restricted the uses for their property but allowed the interior design business.
Similar requests are starting to churn through a four-year cycle as the window for submitting zoning requests to the county for 2000 gets ready to close Nov. 1. The comprehensive zoning map process, which began in August and won't finish until next October, is one of Baltimore County's mechanisms for evaluating and rezoning properties.
As the final days of the open filing period tick away, David S. Thaler, president of D. S. Thaler and Associates, a civil engineering and planning firm, compares the process to a wedding.
"There are tremendous preparations that take place before a wedding. We are like the caterers," he said. "The homeowners have an idea of what they want, and community associations have an idea of what they want to do, but the physical work -- the cooking -- we have to prepare."
Randy Gerstmyer also found that talking to neighbors first to get their support seemed to ensure success for changing the zoning of a house in Timonium from mixed-use residential to residential/office in the 1996 cycle.
"I found a small piece of property off York and Oakway roads, and it was strictly a residential piece of property," said Gerstmyer, who runs CTI Publications Inc., a 118-year-old family business that produces technical reference books for the food industry.
After contacting neighborhood leaders, Gerstmyer was told that the community didn't want a commercial operation in the neighborhood.
He asked to meet with them, and after discussing his intent, members of the Yorkshire-Haverford Community Association and the Greater Timonium Community Council agreed to back him on the change.
"I told them there would be no street trade at all. They requested, and we agreed in writing, that we would not try to change the zoning again for another 10 years."
Although the procedure can become complicated, county staffers are available to help people through the process, said Gary L. Kerns, chief of comprehensive and community planning for the Baltimore County Office of Planning.
"The first thing is to make sure you know the zoning that you have right now and to determine that you absolutely need a change of zoning. A lot of people come in and want to change their zoning, but they are not quite sure what they have," said Kerns.
That information can be found on maps in the county planning and zoning offices.
The first step in the process includes an application that can be picked up at the planning office or on the county's Web site at www.co.ba.md.us.
The fee depends on the size of the project, but is roughly $500 for properties of less than 2 acres inside the planned water and sewer service area or for properties of less than 10 acres outside the planned water and sewer area.
The cost rises to $1,250 for properties of 2 or more acres inside the planned water and sewer area and properties of 10 or more acres outside the planned water and sewer area.
A community association can also raise a zoning issue for $75, but the association must be able to present certain documents, including a copy of its bylaws or articles of incorporation and the boundaries of the association.
In the past, the county would send notices by mail to owners whose properties were being considered for a zoning change when the request originated from someone else.
Adjacent property owners many times were unaware that there was a zoning issue involving the neighboring property.
In July the County Council passed a law that allowed for more public notice.
Signs must be posted at the site at least 15 days before the planning board holds hearings for properties being considered for a zoning change.
The posting fee is $60 for every sign required for the issue. In most cases, only one sign is required for an individual parcel, Kerns said.
Besides getting the application in on time, the second most important thing to do, Kerns said, is to get in touch with local community associations.
"People have to make a good case for the change. Just saying they want to sell the property and make more money for economic gain is not necessarily a good argument," he said.
Kerns said the zoning change must be consistent with the Baltimore County Master Plan and community plans, as well as making good planning sense.
"What they should do is meet with community associations in the area and describe to the community what it is they want to do with the zoning change. It's in their best interest to solicit support of the community in their area," he said.
Another aspect, he said, is that once you submit a request for rezoning, it opens the property up for any zoning to be placed on it.
"It is not limited to the zoning being requested. There have been cases when someone requested a more intensive zone and have wound up with a less intensive zone," said Kerns.
In the past few years, the number of issues raised has decreased.
In the 1970s and 1980s, when the county was growing rapidly, more than 1,000 zoning changes were reviewed. In 1992 there were 608 requests; in 1996, 482. During this round of the comprehensive zoning process, the county expects about 400 issues.
"The county is not growing that fast anymore; we are still growing, but it has slowed down from what it was in the '70s and '80s," said Kerns. "If you look at the Master Plan 2010, there's a lot of discussion on where the county is right now, and the emphasis has shifted to community conservation, rural preservation and economic development."
For Gerstmyer, getting the backing of the community associations was the most difficult hurdle. When he got their approval, he "basically walked it on through from there."
Although he started with the help of a lawyer, he decided ultimately not to use one.
"In dealing with the community folks and the county, it was very informal initially. I asked the community association if they thought I needed a lawyer, and they said that some formality would come to it if I got a lawyer," Gerstmyer said.
"It seemed to all revert back to what the community wanted. I did go to see the councilman for the district and explained to him what I wanted to do. But it seemed that if the community will accept it, then the county would not have any problem with it. But of course you are talking about a project that is very small."
Thaler said he also advises his clients to approach the community about rezoning plans.
"Very few substantial zoning requests are accomplished without the agreement of community groups and without covenants. I think it's vital," he said. "Talking to community groups is fundamental to success in the process.
"If it's a significant rezoning issue, then it would be very difficult to succeed without reaching an agreement with a community group, but that's with give and take on both sides."
Another good strategy, according to David Marks, president of the nearly 700-member Perry Hall Improvement Association, is to get to know the community's County Council representative.
"The best thing to do in the process is to establish a good relationship with your councilman," Marks said. "They ultimately have the veto power over zoning. That's what we have tried to do. Even times when we have disagreed with the councilman, we have tried to have a good public presence so that they know there is a large group of people concerned about zoning."
For this cycle, he said, his association will not be requesting any changes, but they will stay on top of the issues.
"This year we have tried to be very open-minded because we realize once you have the zoning [in place] it is very difficult to try and stop a project," Marks said. "Citizen groups are becoming more sophisticated and they are recognizing that zoning is the only way they are going to prevent a project from being developed."
Although a lawyer or engineer is not needed to go through the process, often they can help save time and frustration.
"Attorneys can help. But you need to find one that has a familiarity with the zoning that exists, with the zoning that's proposed and with the entire process," said Howard Alderman, managing partner of the Towson-based legal firm of Levin and Gann.
Alderman, an attorney and former planner with Baltimore and Harford counties and Maryland, has specialized in land use and development issues since 1986.
"The beginning of the process is relatively simple in terms of filing the application and all the maps that go along with it," Alderman said. Then, he said, the process can become burdensome. "There are many meetings that have to be attended."
Alderman agrees that being upfront with the community is the best strategy and that covenants such as those signed by Gerst-myer and the Dahburas are becoming more common.
"What has been developing over the years is the person who desires the rezoning will meet with the community groups and say, 'I know this zoning classification permits more uses than what any of us may desire, so here's what I'm willing to do,' " he said.
Property owners can then enter into a separate agreement with the community association or neighbors and record the covenants.
"That's a win-win for everybody," said Alderman. "The property owner can get the zoning he or she needs and the neighborhood gets the protection that they need so that if the property owner dies or sells, someone else can't come in and put in an incompatible use."
In the end, Alderman said, it's a business decision that could make the property less marketable over time than it might otherwise be.
The other thing to remember is that a community association can seek to change the zoning on a property it does not own. This can become especially important in a rural community, he said.
"Property owners should be aware of this. Many times families buy farms and many times they are rich in land and that's what they have to leave to their heirs," Alderman said.
"If they get a rezoning notice or that their property is up for rezoning, they should get as much information as they can and if necessary contact someone who's experienced in dealing with these issues."
Baltimore County Zoning Time Line:
August 2 to November 1, 1999
Open filing period
Any person, association, corporation, county agency or other entity may, upon payment of the specified fee, file a petition for zoning reclassification on any property in the county.
November 1 to November 30, 1999
Planning Board filing period
Additional zoning issues may be raised, but only by the members of the Baltimore County Planning Board.
December 1, 1999 to January 18, 2000
County Council filing period
Additional zoning issues may be raised, but only by the members of the Baltimore County Council.
April 3 to April 28, 2000
Planning Board public hearings
The Baltimore County Planning Board schedules a public hearing in each councilmanic district during the month of April. Testimony is limited to those issues within the district for which the hearing is held.
May 1 to June 30, 2000
Planning Board review and recommendations
At public work sessions, the planning board reviews and discusses various issues, with a recommendation on each issue being formally adopted by June 30.
July 1 to July 31, 2000
The planning board's recommendation on each issue is transmitted to the County Council within 20 days after the board's vote.
County Council review
The County Council has sole authority to determine the final zoning on each property and may accept, reject or modify the planning board recommendations.
Sept. 1 to September 30, 2000
County Council public hearings
The County Council schedules a public hearing in each councilmanic district during the month of September. Testimony is limited to those issues within the district for which the hearing is held.
Before October 16, 2000
County Council adoption of maps
The council must vote on each issue before Oct. 16, 2000. The new Comprehensive Zoning Map takes effect 45 days after the county executive signs it into law.
Baltimore County's comprehensive zoning process -- undertaken every four years -- is one of the quickest cycles in the state. Here's how the surrounding jurisdictions conduct their processes:
Anne Arundel: Comprehensive zoning process immediately follows the county's general plan, which occurs every 10 years. The last general plan was adopted in 1997, and the county is now going through its comprehensive zoning process.
Baltimore City: There is no comprehensive zoning process. Instead, rezoning issues are taken directly to the zoning board or City Council for review.
Carroll County: Since there are eight municipalities or towns, the process here is more complicated. The county comprehensive zoning isn't set at a regular cycle; however, the county is required to perform a master plan every six years. The county currently has a draft comprehensive plan before the county commissioners for review.
Harford County: Comprehensive rezoning comes every eight years. The last one was completed in 1997.
Howard County: Performs a rezoning in the county approximately every 10 years, but allows for piecemeal rezoning to be submitted at any time. The last rezoning effort in Howard County was in 1993. A person, at any time can petition to have zoning regulations amended.