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Baltimore begins rezoning process


Baltimore was a factory town the last time somebody set down rules for what could be built in this city and where. Luxury housing was not gobbling up waterfront industrial sites. There were no cell phone towers to plant, no group homes next to private homes. Neighborhoods had pubs, not rollicking bars for college kids. And the first off-key strains of karaoke were safely off shore.

Thirty-three years and countless social, economic and technological changes later, it's time to update Baltimore's zoning, say city planning officials.

The Department of Planning, which itself is reorganizing, has begun rewriting the zoning code, a process that could take two to four years. The City Council and mayor would have to sign off on the proposed changes.

"We're trying to make sense out of Baltimore zoning in a way that's going to guide development," said Otis Rolley III, the city's planning director. "I think we have a lot of uses that we didn't have 33 years ago, and we just need to address that."

Rezoning will be a high-stakes venture because it charts growth for many years to come, said Councilwoman Lois A. Garey, who leads the city's Land Use and Planning Committee.

"If you don't do it right the first time, you can look at it for the next 50 years and wish you had," she said.

One of the first issues planners are addressing is live entertainment. That was not a big concern in the rezoning of 1971, when the city was not much of a draw for tourists and bar-hoppers. But today, Baltimore aspires to be a "24-hour city" where people work, live and play all night long, Rolley said. More live entertainment could help that become a reality, he said.

Current zoning makes it nearly impossible for most bars to offer live music because that requires a variance, Rolley said. The city hopes to create certain arts and entertainment districts -- in downtown, Highlandtown and Greenmount West -- that would allow live performances, giving Baltimore a more vibrant nightlife, Rolley said.

Garey, on the other hand, said she is interested in reining in one form of live entertainment: karaoke. The sing-along machines are not regulated under city zoning rules.

Garey thinks karaoke can be too loud for some places -- particularly the neighborhood bars that started as relatively quiet pubs for factory workers and now serve rowdier college crowds. She wants the machines treated like other forms of live entertainment.

"I think people didn't realize you'd have somebody caterwauling next to a rowhouse" when corner bars opened decades ago, she said.

Melvin Kodenski, an attorney who has represented Baltimore clubs and bars on regulatory issues for three decades, said it might be a good idea for city zoning to differentiate between forms of live entertainment -- between a concert hall and a quiet piano bar, for example.

But he warns that questions of personal taste could complicate that effort, leading to unfair restrictions on venues serving younger patrons. "If you had Pavarotti in there, he sings as loud as Megadeth. But we like Pavarotti, we don't like Megadeth," he said.

City planners are also looking at the issue of group homes, something that did not have to be addressed three decades ago, when the elderly and mentally disabled often lived in big institutions. Today, many live in ordinary neighborhoods in single-family homes run by private companies and nonprofit groups. The change was brought about in large part because advocates for the elderly and disabled argued in lawsuits nationwide that those settings are more humane.

No one knows how many of these homes -- which also serve recovering drug addicts, juvenile delinquents and the homeless -- exist in Baltimore. Many are unregulated or operate without required licenses, Rolley said. Some neighborhoods complain that they have been overrun, Rolley said.

Rezoning can only go so far to address the concentration of group homes in certain areas, Rolley warns, because federal fair-housing laws prohibit discrimination against those housing fewer than nine people. But cities have more say over where larger group homes locate, and Rolley wants the new zoning rules to do that.

Another area of concern is the city's waterfront. Thirty years ago, it was a center for heavy industry. Today, many factories have given way to luxury housing like HarborView. Home to Ravens and Orioles players, the complex of townhouses and a 27-story high-rise was built on the former Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s shipyard off Key Highway.

Such transformations have been piecemeal, with industrial zoning changed parcel by parcel for particular residential and business developments.

While the high-end housing has helped revitalize the city, Baltimore needs to preserve some industrial areas -- particularly those that offer access to deep-water shipping channels, Rolley said. He raised questions about the much-celebrated construction of a Wal-Mart and Sam's Club at a deep-water access point in Port Covington in 2002.

"Someone could argue that maybe that's not the highest and best use for that location," he said. "In certain areas where we're going to create this protection, it recognizes that industry is still very much important to the Baltimore economy. And clearly it doesn't take all of the waterfront as it did 100 or 200 years ago."

The rezoning effort comes at a time when the Planning Department is undergoing change. The staff, which numbered 80 in the late 1960s, is growing modestly after decades of decline -- from 36 employees to 40.

Rolley, who became planning director in August, required his 14 managers and fiscal staff to reapply for jobs in the reorganized department. Only two were rehired.

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