Karen Gulczynski wants to build a second house on her 2 acres in Essex for her daughter and future son-in-law.
There's one hitch: Baltimore County zoning rules won't let her.
"I could put a golf course back there. I could put a rec center back there, a small church," said Gulczynski, a bus attendant for Baltimore County public schools. "I could put anything back there but a home."
Beginning Tuesday, Gulczynski and anyone else in Baltimore County will be able to ask their elected officials to change the rules covering what can be built on a particular piece of property. Some will want more potential uses for their land, while others will try to restrict future development in their neighborhoods.
The process, called comprehensive rezoning, comes around every four years, and county officials and community activists say it is one of the most significant actions that local government takes. With the stroke of a pen, County Council members can radically alter the landscape, deciding, for instance, whether farmland will become the future site of single-family houses.
In Baltimore County, anyone can request that a parcel - including land owned by others - be rezoned. What results is an often-contentious process that can pit large community organizations seeking to preserve land against individual owners who stand to benefit from enhanced property values.
"It's very hard to challenge a development if the zoning is in place," said Kirsten Burger, president of the Sparks-Glencoe Community Planning Council. "There are very few tools in our arsenal as far as doing that. So really, getting the right zoning in the first place is key."
Four years ago, council members received more than 540 requests to rezone land that ranged in size from small parcels to more than 20,800 acres surrounding the Loch Raven Reservoir. About half of the applicants were granted zoning changes for at least some of the land involved in the application, county officials said.
Officials say the process is not as crucial as it once was because alternative development routes now allow rezoning in certain circumstances year-round. Observers also point to a slump in the housing market and a dwindling amount of undeveloped land as factors that may lead to a relatively small number of rezoning requests this year.
One councilman said he has been approached once in recent weeks to go over the process, compared with 15 to 20 people approaching him before previous cycles.
Many zoning battles may have already been settled, said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina.
"What's out there now is pretty much what people have wanted in the past," said Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat. "I don't think there will be a lot of major requests."
Councilman Kevin Kamenetz said the trend over the past decade has been for the council to use rezoning to reduce the number of potential homes in the county, a practice known as "down-zoning."
He said the main factor he considers is whether the requested change conflicts with long-term growth plans drafted by the county and the surrounding community.
Kamenetz said the public perceives that developers aggressively push changes that would allow more intensive development. But perhaps an equal amount of pressure comes from preservation groups looking to restrict development, he said.
"It's probably one of the most contentious moments in the life of a councilman," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat. Feedback, he said, runs from "polite comment to outright threats: 'You will never win another election.' 'We will always work against you.'"
Richard Klein, who advises community groups on environmental and development issues, said he has been working with a group that plans to ask for rezoning to kill a development project planned for their neighborhood.
Klein, who declined to name the group or the project, said that the developer has refused to work with residents to reduce the size of the project and that residents are turning to the zoning map process as a last resort.
"Since the applicant is refusing to negotiate in good faith, threaten to down-zone the property," Klein said.
To that end, community groups are becoming increasingly savvy in applying for rezoning. David Sides of Hereford, who belongs to a north county preservation group, has developed a computer mapping system that shows the location of wetlands, flood plains and environmentally sensitive areas. The system also pinpoints parcels that are likely to be targeted for development.
"With assiduous use of available information, no one can sneak anything through this time," Irving Spitzberg, a community organizer in northern Baltimore County who plans to use the system, wrote in an e-mail.
Oct. 15 deadline
Residents have until Oct. 15 to submit rezoning applications. County planners will then spend months reviewing the applications and ultimately make recommendations. Public hearings will be held. The council has until September 2008 to vote on the requests.
The council passed a nonbinding resolution this spring that reaffirms a tradition of not accepting campaign contributions during the process.
In the months leading up to the process, some council members have held fundraisers organized by people with interests in the development industry.
Council members said they know of no rezoning requests likely to come from those people, and they said campaign contributions would not influence them.
Kamenetz pointed out that developers aren't the only ones who have contributed to his campaign.
"I've had people who attend my fundraisers who are community activists who wish me to down-zone property," Kamenetz said. "So it's not easily drawn lines here. ... I appreciate their check, but they're not getting any special treatment as a result of it."
Sun reporter Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.
Baltimore County comprehensive rezoning timeline
Sept. 4 to Oct. 15
Open filing period
Any person, association, corporation, county agency or other entity may, upon payment of the specific fee, file a petition for a zoning reclassification on any property in the county. The fees, which vary according to the size and location of the land, increase after Sept. 28.
Dec. 1 to Feb. 29
The county planning staff reviews each application and publishes a "Log of Issues," which includes summaries of each request and maps. Notices are mailed to owners of properties being reviewed, and signs are posted to announce the issue number and Planning Board public hearing.
March 1 to March 31
Planning Board public hearings
April 1 to May 15
Planning Board review and recommendations
June 2 to June 30
County Council public hearings
Sept. 16, 2008
Deadline for County Council to vote on each issue