Baltimore City Council zoning overhaul would promote walking, discourage frats and bondsmen

Baltimore City Council nears end of 4-year-long rewrite of zoning rules.

The Baltimore City Council is nearing the end of a years-long rewrite of zoning rules meant to create a more walkable city while limiting the types of businesses officials see as negative for neighborhoods.

The overhaul is aimed at making it easier for planning officials to create communities with homes, jobs, shopping and entertainment options all near each other, while imposing new regulations on entities city officials want to deter.

Sororities and fraternities, bail bondsmen, check-cashing businesses and liquor stores would have to gain City Council approval before opening in much of Baltimore. Under current law, they need only seek the approval from the zoning or liquor board.

"It's a safeguard for people who live in these communities," said Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "The elected members of the City Council are the ones who are responsible to their constituents.

"You'd like to have your elected officials looking into an issue instead of a bureaucrat who doesn't live in your neighborhood."

The zoning overhaul is on the council's agenda for Monday, and it is scheduled to receive a final vote next month. Signing the sweeping overhaul is expected to be one of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's final official acts. Mayor-elect Catherine E. Pugh takes office Dec. 6, and the new City Council is to be sworn in Dec. 8.

Council Vice President Edward Reisinger shepherded the bill through the council.

"It's been a long journey," he said. "I'm glad it's over. We're not 100 percent where we want to be, but we're 95 percent there.

"When the new council comes in in January, we're going to put together a group to evaluate what we passed. If anything fell through the cracks, we'll amend it then."

Baltimore's current zoning bill was approved in 1971. The city's Planning Department began to work on a rewrite of the law eight years ago, and the council has worked on it for more than four years.

Council members have considered more than 800 amendments and signed off on more than 290.

Laurie R. Feinberg, Baltimore's assistant director of planning, worked on the legislation for years. She said it would not be unusual after such an overhaul for the council to take a fresh look at what passed in January.

"Philadelphia had amendments within two weeks of passage of their zoning bill," she said. "There are going to be mistakes. I would hope it gets amended once a year. Certainly, anything would be better than waiting for 40 years. These things need to be frequently looked at as cities change and evolve."

Council members say the overhaul, dubbed TransForm Baltimore, has been written to usher in an era of faster, simpler development. It includes changes intended to promote the reuse of the city's old buildings and encourage walkable neighborhoods that include homes and businesses suited to 21st-century tastes.

The changes in the bill would make it easier to create urban farms, bioparks and projects built near transit stops.

The council erupted in a bitter dispute last month over how the code handles liquor stores.

The rewrite would put dozens of liquor stores in residential neighborhoods out of business. Councilman Nick J. Mosby proposed a 60-page amendment that would have been even more stringent.

Mosby proposed creating a Public Nuisance Prevention Board that included community members, limiting the sale of individual beers, and blocking some new liquor-serving establishments from opening within 300 feet of existing establishments.

Young and others argued the amendment was anti-business. It failed by a vote of 11-3.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke supported Mosby's amendment. She was pleased with other aspects of the zoning bill.

"I'm relieved and glad to see it end successfully," she said. "We were very much in consensus about the kinds of businesses that we need to have council approval for.

"I feel it's a good new code, but yet we'll be making some changes. We'll be in a position to fix things that aren't working."

Disputes flared up around Baltimore over the rezoning. The council held more than 40 meetings to address concerns.

In Fells Point, neighborhood groups banded together to try to limit building heights, but the proposal failed.

In nearby Highlandtown, representatives of industrial firms took issue with an amendment proposed by Councilman James B. Kraft to allow the construction of new homes. Opponents feared a clash between residents and business.

Kraft's amendment stood.

In Roland Park, the Baltimore Country Club tried to prevent a cap on the number of homes that could be built on its land.

Neighbors supported the limit, and the council sided with them.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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