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Strict builders design bill OK'd


In a move that took even the planning director by surprise, the Baltimore County Council has adopted strict design standards for residential developments and applied them countywide, instead of in the neighborhoods where they were envisioned.

The rules, which clamp down on things such as cul-de-sacs, irregularly shaped parcels known as panhandle lots, and oversized garages, were designed for the south Perry Hall-White Marsh area.

But a series of amendments was attached to the original legislation at the last minute, applying the standards throughout the county and changing them from advisory to mandatory. The amendments, introduced by Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, caught some council members and Planning Director Arnold F. Keller III off guard.

"Sometimes in order to clean bills up, amendments are proposed before the session, but usually it's just a cleanup to a technical problem with a bill," Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, said yesterday. "It's never a complete change of the scope of it, and this was a complete change.

"This went from one community ... to countywide, and no community groups or other groups for that matter knew about it. I don't think that's the way you do business. You don't do it behind closed doors like that when it has a profound impact," said Gardina, who voted for most of the amendments and the final bill.

Gardina and Councilman Wayne M. Skinner said they didn't see the amendments until they were distributed to council members while the bill was being discussed Monday night.

"Nobody in Baltimore County knew this was happening, nobody had the chance to comment on it," said Skinner, the only council member to oppose the bill, which passed 6-1.

The rules, the first of their kind in the Baltimore area, will force developers to conform to what the planning department sees as the elements of quality development. But builders have said they are wary of regulations that give planners veto power over developments. Efforts to reach the Home Builders Association of Maryland for comment yesterday were unsuccessful.

Under the amended legislation, cul-de-sacs will only be allowed where topography prevents the construction of through streets. Even then, developments will have to be designed with a mix of cul-de-sacs and other streets.

In addition, the backs of houses can face the street only if builders add extensive screening. And subdivisions will have to be connected to other neighborhoods by more than one street.

Discussed last month

Kamenetz and council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat, said no one should have been surprised by the changes. Plans to make the standards mandatory and apply them countywide were discussed at a council luncheon meeting that was open to the public and reported on in a community newspaper last month, they said.

The planning director has pushed for countywide residential development standards and has sought more authority in making sure developers pay attention to them. But the new legislation went beyond what Keller had advocated.

The intent of the original bill was to force builders to address the planning department's concerns about design quality during development approval hearings, Keller said. The department had to prove why developers should conform to higher standards, and Keller wanted developers to have to prove why they shouldn't.

But the bill gives him veto power over developments. "If the [planning] director finds that a development proposal does not comply with the standards, the proposal may not be approved," the legislation says. Homebuilders can challenge the director's findings before the Board of Appeals.

A point emphasized by advocates of the amendments was that the Home Builders Association of Maryland had been involved in the design of the standards and had approved of them for the south Perry Hall-White Marsh area. If the group approved of them there, Kamenetz said, there's no reason it shouldn't approve of them everywhere.

Wrong impression

But a major reason the association voiced its approval was that it believed the standards would not be mandatory. Tom Ballentine, director of governmental affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said before the council vote that builders are wary of planner reviews dictating the design of projects.

He said he supported the original proposal because it allowed the hearing officer to consider the planning department's recommendations on a case-by-case basis.

If the homebuilders supported the standards under the impression that they could get around them, it was their mistake, Kamenetz said. Builders can discuss issues relating to their projects; but now, those discussions will be with the planning director instead of the hearing officer, he said.

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