County revitalization bill approved


Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s signature legislative proposal for the revitalization of the county's older neighborhoods received an official go-ahead last night from the County Council - after its members expanded their role in the plan.

The amended bill, which passed unanimously and without comment, allows developers of selected projects in selected areas of the county to bypass a property's zoning and the traditional development process by agreeing to take part in an intensive community approval process.

Under changes added to the legislation last night, council members will have a say in the types of projects that can be built on land designated for the program and in the financial incentives offered to developers taking part.

Council members have said that the amendments stemmed from concerns that the legislation would take away too much of their zoning authority.

The council vote comes more than a year after Smith proposed the concept and after months of review by community activists and government officials.

Smith and the bill's supporters have promoted the program as a "tool" in their efforts to revitalize older neighborhoods. But others have questioned whether it can work with no new financial incentives to counteract the extra expense and difficulty that comes with redevelopment. Some have said they are concerned that the process favors developers.

"We'll see how it goes with the first project and see if [it] holds up to the promise of the bill," said Ruth Baisden, president of the Greater Parkville Community Council and a member of an advisory panel set up to study the proposal this year.

The new legislation allows council members to designate areas of five acres or more in their districts for "renaissance opportunity" and relies heavily on the concept of the "charrette" - a series of public workshops through which development proposals are refined and discussed.

Projects selected for the process will start with a blank slate, unencumbered by existing limits on a property's use, but move forward only if a consensus - defined in the legislation as at least 80 percent of community participants in the charrette - is reached.

Under amendments approved yesterday, only those who live, own property or run a business within five miles of the project can take part in the charrette, and community members who want their votes to count must attend at least two meetings.

An additional amendment requires that a developer pay for the facilitator hired to run the charrette - unless the county agrees to pick up the tab as an incentive and notifies the County Council.

Councilman John A. Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat, said that "if I am the first one to have a project done, I look forward to seeing how the process works out."

In other business yesterday, the council authorized issuing up to $5.3 million in revenue bonds for the Maryland Food Bank. The bonds will help pay for the already completed purchase and renovation of the organization's new site in Halethorpe, replacing the food bank's current debt with one that comes with lower interest and tax-exempt status.

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