Balto. Co. Council's development antics lead to important reform

The Baltimore County Council managed to wring something of real value from an ugly confrontation over a townhouse development in Catonsville on Monday night when it agreed to an amendment adding meaningful community input and professional analysis to the planned unit development process. PUDs are meant to allow the construction of high-quality projects that benefit the community even if they don't conform to traditional zoning rules, but community leaders increasingly see them as a way for politically connected developers to skirt the law. The proposal introduced Monday by Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall-Towson Republican, and adopted 6-1, requires a community input meeting and initial analysis by county agencies before a council member introduces a resolution authorizing the formal consideration of a PUD proposal, and that is unquestionably an improvement.

But there was a price to be paid for that reform — the resurrection of the Thistle Landing PUD off of Frederick Road, widely considered to be a bad development and panned by the county agencies that have reviewed it. The same bill that included Mr. Marks' amendment also reverses the council's earlier revocation of its initial approval of that PUD. Whether that bargain will be worth it remains to be seen.

Here's why Mr. Marks' amendment was important. Under the old system, if a developer wanted to take advantage of the PUD process, he or she had to get the local council member to introduce a resolution authorizing it for consideration. Only after that would the developer put together a formal plan for the site, get a review from county agencies and hold a community input hearing, all of which would eventually be considered by an appointed hearing officer, who would give final approval or disapproval.

Of course, the "disapproval" part is purely hypothetical. According to a review of county records by The Sun's Arthur Hirsch, 99 projects have been considered under the PUD process, and none has been denied outright. What that means is that a council member's approval at the beginning of the process is tantamount to final approval, only it is made without any requirement for formal community input or professional review of a project's quality. By switching the order of the review, Mr. Marks' amendment adds some rigor and transparency to the early stages of the process — and makes the council member more accountable for the final result.

If it had been in place when the Thistle Landing PUD came up, it might have saved everyone involved a lot of effort, and it might have saved the council from a self-inflicted black eye.

The plan, proposed by Dimitri's International Grille owner Jimmy Coroneos, calls for 10 townhouses to be built on a 1.5-acre site, such that their front doors would be mere feet from the back of the restaurant's parking lot. Why anyone would want to pay the projected asking price of $300,000-$325,000 for that is hard to fathom. The county's planning department also found problems with storm water management, steep slopes and forest buffers. It concluded that the site design "is not of a quality that is harmonious with or complements sound planning principles for reasonable and practical development."

The resolution supporting the development was introduced by former Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley in the waning months of his term in 2010. It was given the 7-0 approval that is the customary mark of deference to a councilman's prerogative to decide on development in his own district. Mr. Moxley chose not to seek reelection, and Councilman Tom Quirk, who was running to replace him, objected to the project from the start. Several months after taking office — and after a community input hearing and the initial county review — he introduced a resolution to revoke the project's PUD status. It was approved that night, also 7-0. A few weeks later, Council Chairman John A. Olszewski Sr. and Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver — the only two veteran council members — thought better of it and set in motion the chain of events that led to Monday's vote.

The question of what to do about Thistle Landing was a tricky one that involved a legitimate conflict of values. Revoking a council resolution authorizing a PUD was unprecedented, and it ran counter to a key principle of the development process. Fairness demands that developers have some certainty that once the county gives its approval, it won't be arbitrarily taken away. But going against Mr. Quirk violates the principle that councilmen should have the right to determine what gets built in their districts. He felt strongly enough about this particular development that he voted against the PUD legislation even though he agrees with Mr. Marks' reforms to the process. Either letting the project go forward or leaving the earlier revocation intact would have been, in a sense, unjust.

The only person who can untie that knot is the hearing officer who has the last say on this proposal. His decision will determine whether the county code's requirements that PUDs be of high quality and produce real community benefits have any meaning whatsoever.

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