A nearly yearlong exercise that allows every property in Baltimore County to be considered for a zoning change is nearing an end, with a County Council vote scheduled for this week on the Comprehensive Zoning Map process.
The process unfolds once every four years, and it allows property owners to seek new zoning for their land - and neighbors, county planners, council members and community groups to seek zoning changes for parcels owned by others.
Although typically flooded by hundreds of proposals, county planners received requests this year to rezone about 90,000 acres - an area that, if lumped together, would be nearly twice the size of Baltimore City.
The quadrennial rezoning process places tremendous authority in council members' hands to shape the pace and location of development across the county's 640 square miles. And because of the council's tradition of deferring to the wishes of the member who represents the area in question, all seven councilmen will essentially have control over the zoning requests submitted by their constituents when the group convenes tomorrow.
"It can very much influence development and economic development and the retention of residents," said Donna Spicer, executive director of the Loch Raven Community Council, an umbrella group of 18 neighborhood associations, and the Loch Raven Business Association, who has been intensely involved in the last three zoning processes.
But despite its importance, the rezoning process can be a tough one to penetrate.
"It's very confusing to most people out there. It took me two years just to understand the foreign language people were speaking," Spicer said, mentioning the alphabet soup of acronyms and abbreviations batted around a room as government officials debate such requests as downzoning property from RC4 to RC7.
With 547 requests to consider, the council has fewer separate issues to weigh this year than the 619 petitions filed during the last round four years ago. But with several requests affecting thousands of acres each, this year's requests could drastically change development and use of huge tracts of land.
Nowhere is this more true than in the northern areas of the county.
T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, represents the valleys, forests and farms of the 3rd District, where he must decide the fate of tens of thousands of acres affected by 132 rezoning requests - nearly a quarter of the total filed.
They range from a request submitted by the Prettyboy Watershed Preservation Society that would affect more than 12,000 acres to a petition affecting a small house on a single lot, McIntire said.
He said he prepares to decide such varied requests "by working day and night with great diligence and still fearing the ones I miss. Because with most of these issues, a number of people have written in, saying, 'Please do this' or 'Please don't do that.'"
Kevin Kamenetz a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat who represents the 2nd District, must tackle 73 issues affecting more than 10,000 acres in parts of Owings Mills, Pikesville, Reisterstown, Ruxton, Riderwood and Green Spring Valley. Chief among them are proposals for reducing the number of dwellings allowed on a parcel of land, a process known as "downzoning."
"This is a yearlong process, and what I've learned is that I have a district of individuals who generally hate new development, hate traffic congestion but are loath to have their own property downzoned," Kamenetz said.
In every four-year cycle, the rezoning process begins with residents, community groups, council members and county staff submitting rezoning requests. Because the person who submits the request does not have to own the land, staff in the county planning office must notify the property owners and the owners of adjacent properties. The process is tempered by a fee of $500 to $1,565 that must accompany each request, said David Green, a planner for the 4th District.
This year, county staff sent out 31,000 notification letters.
Then comes the procession of hearings and meetings. Council members receive hundreds of letters, e-mails and phone calls. The county's advisory Planning Board votes on the proposals, recommending to the County Council which zoning requests it thinks should be approved and which should be turned down.
Kamenetz estimated that the council follows the Planning Board's recommendations about half the time.
Mixed in this year with the commonplace requests to reduce density in residential areas are some behemoth requests aimed at protecting resources in the county's rural areas, said Jeff Mayhew, the county's chief of community planning.
Among them is the petition from the Prettyboy Watershed Preservation Society, whose members have asked the council to change the zoning on about 12,000 acres in the watershed area from the resource conservation zoning classification known as RC4 to the less permissive RC7, which would allow construction of one house per 25 acres, rather than one house for every 3 acres.
"It would no longer allow developers to subdivide and create communities where there was just raw acreage," said Sharon Bailey, president of the watershed preservation society.
Although the county Planning Board recommended against the request, Bailey said the group is hopeful that McIntire, whose district includes the watershed land, will be more receptive.
"We're hopefully optimistic that something will be done to help protect this area from becoming the grist for the mill of development," Bailey said. Noting that Hunt Valley, Ashland and other communities to the watershed's south are almost fully developed, she said the group's members are fearful that developers soon will look north for their next projects.
"It's a critical time right now," Bailey said. "This is the only way - through rezoning - that we can protect the source of our drinking water."
Mayhew, the county's chief of community planning, said that each four-year rezoning cycle usually results in a tie: about half of the zoning requests spur some change while the other half are turned down.
"There are a number of large issues in the rural area that could swing that differently this time," he said, "but until they vote, we won't really know for sure."
The council is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. tomorrow in the council chambers.