For the seven members of the Baltimore County Council, it's showtime.
Every four years, the council emerges from the long shadow of the county executive to conduct an intriguing civic and political exercise that shapes the county's quality of life and economic health for decades to come.
In the dry parlance of planners, the process is called comprehensive rezoning. In real terms, it means the potential use of every inch of the county's 640 square miles is up for grabs.
The field across the street can become a sea of town homes. A vacant lot can become a gas station. Grassy hills sloping toward fragile streams can be protected forever.
Speculative developers can make millions or go bust. Preservationists can sleep soundly or pack up and move to rural Garrett County in disgust.
Casual observers will need a playbook to distinguish among the county's 34 zones and the differences, say, between DR-2 and DR-3.5 zoning. And each decision lies with a single elected official.
"I would say it's probably one of the greatest burdens and responsibilities a councilman has," said Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a North County-Owings Mills Republican.
A tedious process that began 13 months ago has entered the home stretch. Tomorrow, McIntire will hold the first of seven public hearings - one will be held in each councilmanic district - to gather input on rezoning applications.
The quadrennial exercise ends Oct. 10, when the full council meets to vote on all 619 requests.
Tension fills process
This month's public discussions could drag on into the early-morning hours, and there's plenty of tension built into the process.
Developers and environmentalists will find themselves pitted against each other. County planners have recommended zoning changes intended to preserve thousands of acres in rural areas, but some landowners bristle at additional restrictions.
Elected officials may find themselves at odds with planning professionals and the county planning board, which has conducted its own lengthy hearings and made recommendations on each application.
Final action rests with council members, who, by tradition, defer to the wishes of the member who represents the area in question.
Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, said he convened a group of eastern county community leaders to advise him on his first zoning cycle, but warned them at the outset: "Of course, it's me who will decide."
Planner sees patterns
Having immersed himself in the issues for more than a year, county planning director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller sees a continuation of trends begun a decade ago.
"There's a firm distinction between urban and rural," Keller said.
"In the rural world, there's a much stronger move toward conserving rural resources. ... Within the urban areas, the two big themes are community conservation and economic development," he said.
Citizen groups will closely monitor the rezoning, aware of questionable decisions over the decades that have contributed to traffic jams on York Road, a hodge-podge of businesses along Reisterstown Road and a glut of townhouses in Owings Mills.
"There are some outstanding decisions made, and some bummers made," said Don Gerding, a graphics consultant who is zoning chairman for the Greater Towson Council, an umbrella group for about three dozen neighborhood associations.
Still, elected officials usually listen to the concerns of community groups, Gerding said. "Historically, we find most times the councilmen are receptive, if we do our homework. But that's key. You can't object just for the sake of it. You have to be able to answer questions."
Past filled with scandal
That hasn't always been true. With its ability to confer wealth on business owners and developers, the county zoning process has a seamy history.
In 1980, a federal investigation resulted in the indictment of a Towson attorney who was paying bribes for favorable decisions. The attorney pleaded guilty. Five years later, a county councilman was accused of rezoning property to benefit a business associate who had granted him an interest-free loan, while denying other similar requests. No formal charges were filed.
The current councilmen say they want to remove the influence of money from their decisions. As happened four years ago, they suspended fund-raising between August 1999, when zoning applications were first filed, and next month's vote.
"The appearance of impropriety is worse than any impropriety itself," said Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, explaining why he supports the fund-raising ban.
But some critics say they still smell the stench of money.
Ruth Baisden, a community activist from Parkville, said she was shocked in 1996 when Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, told her she shouldn't hire a lawyer to fight a proposal for a business expansion near her home, and should instead donate the money to his campaign.
"He said he gets his money through rezoning issues for his campaign," Baisden said.
"We didn't even think this guy was serious, it was so blatant," she said. "But looking back, of course he was serious."
Bartenfelder denies making the statement.
"I don't even remember any joking conversation like that," he said. "To give her comments credence would give her credibility, so I'm not even going to comment on that."
This year's most visible cases include major preservation efforts in rural areas and high-profile residential projects opposed by neighbors.
McIntire, whose 163 rezoning cases are more than double those in the district with the next highest number, said his toughest decision involves a farm along Interstate 83 at Middletown Road in Parkton. The owner says he needs to sell a piece to a developer so he can pay debts and continue farming his remaining property. Community groups want to block the proposal for 50 homes.
In Moxley's west-side district, the planning board has recommended preserving more than 5,000 rural acres near Old Court Road.
The proposal would limit the ability of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church to use much of a 255-acre tract it purchased in Granite, though a proposed 3,000-seat sanctuary could still be built there.
In the 2nd District, Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz is under pressure to approve a pair of luxury high-rise condominium buildings - one of them 15 stories - on surplus cemetery property on Park Heights Avenue near Pikesville.
The project is backed by influential developer Howard Brown and the son of Hanan Y. "Bean" Sibel, a leading fund-raiser and friend of County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.
The Falls Road Community Association, working with attorney Robert Sellers, is hoping to prevent development along tributaries that feed into Beaverdam Run through the Worthington Valley. The proposal covers 2,400 acres.
Tomorrow's hearing will be held at Owings Mills High School, 124 Tollgate Road, followed by a Thursday hearing for 1st District issues at Lansdowne High School, 3800 Hollins Ferry Road.
A Sept. 12 hearing for the 2nd District will be held at Milford Mill Academy, 3800 Washington Ave.; a Sept. 14 hearing for the 6th District will be held at Loch Raven High School, 1212 Cowpens Ave.; a Sept. 19 hearing for the 5th District will be held at Perry Hall High School, 4601 Ebenezer Road; and a Sept. 21 hearing for the 7th District is scheduled at Patapsco High School, 8100 Wise Ave. The 4th District hearing will be held Sept. 26 at Towson High School, 69 Cedar Ave.
All hearings begin at 7 p.m.