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County parks chief to rule on open-space waivers

The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore County parks official will have sole authority to exempt developers from requirements to set aside land within communities for recreational use under legislation approved by the County Council last night.

The bill empowers the county recreation and parks director to decide whether a developer can pay cash as an alternative to preserving open space within a neighborhood. For large developments, such decisions have traditionally been made at public hearings by a zoning commissioner.

Council members proposed the bill after the Board of Appeals ruled that county law, with few exceptions, did not permit the parks director to grant waivers for projects larger than 20 housing units. The appeals board had overturned the director's decision to grant a waiver to a developer who agreed to pay $163,400 in lieu of setting aside parkland for a 76-house project on Liberty Road near the Baltimore City line.

County officials say that charging fees sometimes makes more sense than requiring the construction of recreational lots. They point to the example of a developer who would be forced to cut down trees to meet the requirements.

"The intent is to provide recreational space," said Robert J. Barrett, the county director of recreation and parks. Money from the fees, he added, "will go into an open-space fund, which will allow me more discretion in purchasing land."

But at least one community organizer who has dealt with county leaders about open-space waivers said she's wary of decisions being made outside of public hearings.

"The zoning commissioner looks at it case by case, and there's community testimony," said Ruth Baisden, a community organizer in Parkville.

Tom Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Maryland Association of Homebuilders, pointed out that in smaller residential developments, the space required to be set aside is so small that the land doesn't provide much room for recreational use.

Also last night, the council approved County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s appointment of Col. James W. Johnson as the county police chief. He succeeds Terrence B. Sheridan, who was named the superintendent of the Maryland State Police.


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