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Baltimore County executive candidates make pitch to development industry

Four of the leading candidates for Baltimore County executive spoke before a crowd of more than 100 real estate agents, builders and mortgage professionals on Tuesday, making promises that they’ll encourage smart growth and improve the development approval process.

Here are some of the highlights from the forum, which featured County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat; state Sen. Jim Brochin, a Cockeysville Democrat; former state Del. Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Dundalk Democrat; and insurance commissioner Al Redmer Jr., a Middle River Republican.

- Candidates did not offer support for impact fees.

Baltimore County is one of the few local jurisdictions without impact fees, which are charges that developers pay on construction projects in order to offset the impact that new residents or businesses will have on services such as schools, police and fire. Candidates were asked whether impact fees would be a way for the county to raise money.

Brochin said rather than impact fees, it might be wise to set a standard that new housing developments can’t be built in areas where schools are close to becoming overcrowded.

“I don’t know that impact fees are the solution,” Redmer said.

Olszewski said Baltimore County already is facing a lot of redevelopment, and impact fees wouldn’t necessarily make sense on projects in areas that are already developed but just seeing new uses.

Almond said “it’s a little late” to consider impact fees. Perhaps they might have made sense 20 years ago, when there was a lot of new development, she said.

- Candidates said the approval process could be smoother.

“We would be willing to examine any means to remove barriers to building quality and affordable housing,” Redmer said in response to a question about whether he’d consider waiving requirements such as open space, forest conservation and stormwater management to speed up the process.

Olszewski talked about his wife spending eight hours at an office in Towson to get a permit for a tent for a fundraiser, and Almond told a story of a woman who spent five hours getting a permit to build a fence at her house. “Our process is cumbersome,” she said.

“What’s clear is we have a breakdown in the approval process,” Brochin said.

- Rezoning continues to be a thorny issue.

Olszewski also said rezoning decisions need to be more predictable and based on the county’s master plan for growth. “We need to have clear guidelines of when changes are appropriate so decisions are based on merit, they aren’t political decisions,” he said.

Redmer agreed, saying: “Zoning decisions should be consistent with the master plan. If we don’t like the master plan, then we need to figure out a way to change it.” He also said downzoning should not be done “unilaterally” and there should be an appeals process for properties that are downzoned.

Brochin said perhaps the County Council shouldn’t get the final word on rezoning decisions, suggesting the county’s planning board could be empowered to override the council.

Almond noted that rezoning decisions are not up to the county executive. That power rests with the County Council, she said.

- The candidates knew their audience.

Only Brochin made a statement that guaranteed not to curry favor with the pro-development crowd. He repeated his pledge to “end pay-to-play politics” — a jab at developers who make significant campaign donations.

Other candidates largely noted that development is important for growing the county’s economy and boosting the money collected from property taxes.

“It’s important that we have investors like yourselves in our communities,” Almond said. “You are not the bad guys. You are our partners. Without you, we can’t move Baltimore County forward. With you, we can move Baltimore County forward.”

The forum was hosted by the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, the Maryland Mortgage Bankers and Brokers Association and the Maryland Building Industry Association.

It was the first of several forums on tap for the county executive candidates this week. On Wednesday, they’re invited to a forum hosted by chambers of commerce, followed by a forum Thursday morning with conservation groups. And on Thursday afternoon, the Community College of Baltimore County will host the candidates at the college’s Catonsville campus.

The other candidates running in the primaries are Kevin Marron, a Democrat from Carney, and state Del. Pat McDonough, a Republican from Middle River.

The primary elections are on June 26, with early voting on June 14. The candidates are vying to succeed County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat who is now running for governor.

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