Focus of bill is on hotels

The Baltimore Sun

A zoning bill that administration officials have called "housekeeping" would make it easier to build hotels, condominiums, nursing homes and golf courses.

One major provision of the 17-page bill coming before the County Council next week would clear the way for more hotels on the county's shrinking supply of industrial land.

Under current law, hotels in the industrial W-2 zone are limited to 25,000 square feet and must be accompanied by a larger warehouse component. County Executive John R. Leopold originally recommended lifting the warehouse requirement but said last week that he now only intends to increase hotels' maximum size.

Planning Director Larry R. Tom said his staff is working on how much to raise the cap but said it could be in the range of 75,000 square feet -- which would be more befitting large, upscale hotel chains.

Councilman Jamie Benoit said Leopold's first proposal would have reduced the county's 534-acre stock of W-2 property, which is generally cheaper than land with other commercial designations allowing hotels.

Most of the county's available industrial land is near BWI Marshall Airport, and Leopold acknowledged that allowing bigger hotels there would support his vision of an "Aerotropolis" around the airport.

According to the county's Economic Development Agency, there are 37 hotels in the BWI business district, with an additional 14 proposed or under construction this year. More than 5,000 rooms have been added to the county's inventory since 2002.

Connie Del Signore, president and chief executive officer of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau, said developers are pursuing more hotel space in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. She said new size limits won't change the type of hotels near BWI, but a higher cap could help meet a need for large conference spaces and banquet rooms that accommodate 1,000 to 1,500 guests.

"It's a question of what type of facilities they will be," she said. "Some will be a destination on their own and will not cannibalize what we already have in the area."

Elsewhere, a proposed change would eliminate the 50-foot setback for parking lots for age-restricted housing, allowing them to abut each other. County planning officials say builders would still have to include a buffer separating residential developments from nearby commercial property, but Benoit disputes that interpretation.

The Crownsville Democrat plans to try to strike the provision, which would benefit a condominium development slated for the Piney Orchard Village Center. Koren Development has submitted plans for a 48-unit, 55-and-over development adjoining the shopping center. The fact that homes could be even closer to stores under Leopold's bill concerns residents.

"If the buffer is not going to be an issue anymore, they're just going to build even more in less space," said Linda Reece, a member of Piney Orchard's safety committee who opposes the condos.

Benoit said allowing parking inside the traditional setback zone would give the developer 50 more feet to work with all the way around the 6-acre parcel. Benoit said that if the provision were defeated, it might foil Koren's plans to add units and make more money.

A call seeking comment from Koren on Friday was not returned.

Among the other provisions, the changes would allow golf courses on land designated as open space and reduce the number of acres required for assisted-living facilities from 10 to 5.

Tracie Reynolds, a county land-use spokeswoman, said the bill is "technical" in nature and cleans up language muddled in a major rewrite of the zoning code in 2005.

But Benoit said he expects the bill to be the subject of vigorous debate during a hearing Oct. 1.

"The notion that this is exclusively a cleanup bill is false," he said. "I think just about every one of us is going to be introducing some amendment to some part of it."

Kimberly Marselas is a freelance writer. Phillip McGowan is a Sun reporter.

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