A better process for Solo Cup

"We want new commercial activity to go into the existing vacant area, not create new, shining centers that will only have the effect of creating new white elephants."

County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, September 2004, discussing retail rezoning requests for Reisterstown Road.

Like his predecessors, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has shown leadership with his past commitment to the belief that retail development in Baltimore County ought to follow a carefully crafted master plan aimed at the Owings Mills Mall and the Metro Centre development.

Two consecutive Baltimore County administrations have worked diligently to urge Owings Mills Mall owner General Growth Properties (GGP) to reinvest in Owings Mills by de-malling the complex and connecting it to the Owings Mills Transit Center. If they could not do this, they were urged to find a local partner who would accomplish the task. That was the county directive, in both public statements and private, direct conversations.

After GGP emerged from a complicated bankruptcy, the company listened and partnered with Baltimore County's leading shopping center owner — Kimco Realty. Last November, the county announced that the GGP/Kimco partnership was delivering on the county's directive through a $75 million reinvestment in the Owings Mills Mall.

What was the reaction to this unprecedented smart growth transit-oriented investment? The announcement four days later of plans to rezone a manufacturing property for a new, 400,000-square foot retail development less than two miles away from the existing Owings Mills Mall and the new Owings Mills Metro Centre.

And this announcement of retail plans for the Solo Cup property was accompanied by an immediate public endorsement from Councilwoman Vicki Almond, whose district includes the Solo Cup property — prior to any public hearings or studies, despite the fact that the new retail center was in conflict with the Master Plan and would be placed on a persistently gridlocked intersection, just blocks from the county's treasured Greenspring Valley.

As much as I understand political enthusiasm for projects at first blush, I also understand that a zoning process must have real community engagement before the council approves a rezoning. This did not happen here. The integrity of the zoning process is in question and therefore public confidence in the process remains shaken. One group of community leaders has already amassed nearly 10,000 voter signatures in opposition. Clearly our Baltimore County constituents are crying out!

At the heart of this outcry about the Solo Cup property lies a large group of constituents who are asking for more input in the rezoning process. They don't believe that the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process provided adequate opportunities — particularly when they saw such a public endorsement of the zoning request prior to any studies or public hearings. In the minds of our constituents, when the property owner seeking the zoning changes doesn't even feel the need to testify in support of the request before the Planning Board, while at the same time refusing to disclose the full and complete traffic studies that they purport to have done, the "fix" seems to be in.

If we want to restore faith and truth in our zoning decisions, we need to step back and give the community more say here. That means rejecting the CZMP zoning change request for the Solo Cup property and telling the developers they need to come back with a rezoning request through a more inclusive process — one that provides for in-depth studies on how a new 400,000-square foot mall would impact such critical issues as traffic along the Reisterstown Road corridor and the retail market for our community's existing small businesses.

That could result in a Planned Unit Development proposal, as well as a series of community charettes like those that succeeded in Dundalk, Middle River, Towson and Randallstown. I am particularly struck by the charette process as a community involvement tool, as I recall such an approach in eastern Baltimore County won former County Executive Jim Smith national recognition as County Executive of the Year.

Do we choose to ignore the thousands of signatures from across Owings Mills and Baltimore County, asking us for more process and community input on this proposed new 400,000-square foot retail mall? Or do we step back and tell the community that we are listening and we value their calls for more study, more analysis, and more conversation?

I think the answer is obvious.

Kenneth N. Oliver, a Democrat, represents the 4th District on the County Council and is former chairman of the county planning board. His email is council4@baltimorecountymd.gov.

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