THE SUREST path to political success in Baltimore City is to be anti-crime. In Baltimore County, the latest political trend is to be anti-development. The fervor is escalating.
County residents have moved beyond NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), beyond NOPE (Not On Planet Earth). They have a selfish outlook that is best described as the Pull Up The Ladder Syndrome, which is exemplified by these words: "Now that I have my new home, I don't want anyone else in the neighborhood."
The reality is that zero development is unrealistic. Development is essential to the county's long-term fiscal health. And in this trendy era of Smart Growth, we must not lose sight of another goal: Smart Development. The only way we can achieve it is to make sure new development is compatible with existing neighborhoods and our most up-to-date zoning laws and regulations.
The Greenspring Quarry project near Pikesville is a good example of a development project that is incompatible with nearby neighborhoods and current zoning laws and regulations.
Located just inside the Beltway on virgin land (or rubble), this soon-to-be closed gravel pit might seem an attractive candidate for Smart Growth policy. Originally planned as a "mini-Cross Keys," the 233-acre quarry site is slated to include more than 850 residential units, plus 350,000 square feet of retail and office space, and a 125-room hotel.
Years ago, it sounded like a great project, especially compared to the noisy asphalt plant that released noxious fumes from the site. The quarry owner rankled nearby property owners with the plant, and quickly moved it to Pulaski Highway after the development deal was cut. Today, the development proposal stands as a relic from a bygone time. It was conceived 15 years ago, before crowded schools and roads and other quality of life issues became hot-button political issues.
No development project should be viewed in isolation. Rather, it's better to ask: How does this project fit with the surrounding neighborhood? We can't take the Greenspring community back in a time machine. Since the quarry project was approved in 1984, at least 2,500 homes have been built in the area, including about 500 townhomes and condos on an adjacent site. The result has been school crowding and rush-hour traffic backups at Greenspring Avenue and Old Court Road. Traffic delays on the Greenspring Avenue exit ramp from the Beltway are even worse. Meanwhile, at least 650 new houses and apartments are in the planning stage or under construction within the same census tract. And all this has happened before the first shovel of dirt has been turned for the quarry's huge new construction project.
Ironically, the land for this project is zoned solely for single-family homes. Yet the developers are proposing more than a dozen multistory buildings containing almost 700 apartment units, in addition to 100 single-family units, and possibly townhouses. The plan also includes commercial development -- a retail and office center -- that would put the nearby Green Spring Station office and retail complex to shame.
Should the quarry site be developed at all? Certainly. But present zoning and development law probably would allow only 250 single-family homes at this site -- less than one-third of the 1984 proposal. If built under today's standards, these homes would have the latest environmental protections, adequate roadway frontage buffers and enough yard space to raise a family. But the quarry project has no such development or regulatory protection.
How can they do this? Since 1984, the zoning laws have improved in Baltimore County. We no longer allow apartments to be built in areas where only single-family homes are allowed. We require larger buffers and setbacks between buildings and roads. We require more landscaping and forest set-asides and open space. But when this quarry deal was reached in 1984, the County Council simultaneously passed a law that said when a "quarry reclamation plan" is in effect, no subsequent changes in zoning law or development regulations shall apply. This is so even though the quarry proposal has never gone through the county's formal development process, or received required approval by the county's hearing officer.
Talk about special interest legislation. In 1984, there was no quarry plan in place other than the one on the Greenspring site. And there is not one word pertaining to environmental concerns in the Greenspring Quarry plan.
I asked my fellow council members to review this 1984 law. The special quarry "exception" in the County Code raises legal questions. At a minimum it resembles "contract zoning," which is forbidden by Maryland's appellate courts. But the quarry owners have questions of their own. What about the sanctity of a deal? they ask. Doesn't reviewing this 1984 law send a bad message to the county's big business?
My response is that everyone should have to play by the same rules. Why should a quarry owner be given a competitive advantage over nearby development proposals? This land is no different from any other parcel in the county. All county land (except quarry sites) is subject to the county's once-every-four-year rezoning process. Some council members are reluctant to challenge a major company. Some recognize the need to do the right thing. At this point, I have asked the quarry owners to reduce the project's scale. Time -- and more discussion -- will determine the next step.
The Greenspring Quarry project underscores another loophole that should be closed. The county requires a formal development process for every proposed construction project. This requires adherence to underlying land use (e.g., residential vs. commercial; high density vs. rural), as well as the current development regulations (e.g., size of the yards or lots, height of the buildings, available public or space). The developer must conduct a public community input meeting, and the proposed project must be approved by a hearing officer who ensures compliance with all zoning and development laws.
Once a project is approved, however, developers often go to great lengths to "lock in" or "vest" this approval indefinitely -- even though actual construction is never initiated. They do this by "pulling" a permit or starting construction by bulldozing the site, or a small portion of it. Then they wait, for various reasons -- lack of financing, changes in the economy, a chance to resell the project. Once a project becomes vested, the developer doesn't have to go through the process again when actual construction begins. More important, any new changes in the zoning or development laws don't apply to vested projects.
Some of these vested plans were approved by the county more than 20 years ago. Shouldn't these unbuilt projects be subject to the same rules affecting development that are initiated today?
Too often, developers say: "Free us from regulatory shackles and we will build masterpieces." Perhaps they are sincere when they say that. But too often the free market mentality sets in: Build more units for less money and bank the difference.
So I dare to encourage development, but with a new twist. Quality, not quantity. Something unique and lasting, not the standard cookie-cutter home. The only way to ensure this is through county zoning laws and development regulations.
My first step would be to eliminate the loophole that prevents old projects from being subject to new laws. If a previously approved or vested project does not come online within three years, it must be built according to the latest standards passed by the County Council.
Next, I would offer the bold suggestion that developments should always be subject to design standards -- similar to what the county requires for the optional Planned Unit Development (PUD) process. Presently, the only planned community project subject to these design criteria is Honeygo Town Center. Through special zoning laws and development regulations enacted by the County Council, Honeygo's new homes must be built according to guidelines for construction materials -- brick fronts, for example, -- garage setbacks, and other aesthetic choices. Why not maintain such standards throughout the county?
The developers will rail about higher costs and the need to provide "affordable" housing in Baltimore County. Hogwash! Baltimore County's older communities inside the Beltway are filled with quality housing stock at affordable prices. We need to keep the resale demand for this product strong in order to maintain the quality of these established neighborhoods.
Why are we distracting buyers with new $100,000 townhouses -- cheaply built with vinyl siding and no yard space -- in a new suburb, when they could be directed to a solidly built, all-brick home in a Smart Growth neighborhood for the same price.
What happens to the resale value of our older housing stock if we don't alter this destructive development policy? Do we simply discard old homes like we junk old cars? These are hardly sound planning principles.
So I say, development is fine, if we put our brains into Smart Growth. Between the extremes of zero development and stupid development, we must find an intelligent compromise, Smart Development.
Kevin B. Kamenetz serves as chairman of the Baltimore County Council. A Democrat, he represents the 2nd District, which includes the communities of Pikesville, Liberty Road, and Woodlawn.