Community members came out in force last month during a scheduled “community input meeting” in Middle River to comment on the BC Middle River Park Planned Unit Development (PUD) proposed for a 400-acre parcel of land that includes the site of the LaFarge Quarry. The PUD was approved for further review by Baltimore County Council Res. 39-22, which passed on a 4-3 vote last October, and residents roundly rejected it at the meeting.
The deeply flawed PUD is a symptom of a disease endemic to Baltimore County: “councilmanic courtesy.” It is a problem in the county that must be confronted.
In its benign form, councilmanic courtesy recognizes that the views of a council member who represents a district deserve serious consideration on matters affecting the district. As practiced in Baltimore County, however, it means absolute deference, with other members essentially turning over their votes to that member.
The sacrosanct nature of councilmanic courtesy was on display last fall, during the council meeting at which Res. 39-22, introduced by former Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, was approved. When other members expressed doubts about the PUD, Council Chairman Julian Jones chastised them, stating:
“I don’t want us to stray too far away here … from councilmanic courtesy. And I trust Councilwoman Bevins to know what’s right for her district.”
Bevins, who decided not to run for reelection in November, introduced Res. 39-22 shortly before the end of her term. Little wonder her former constituents are angry. In 2020, concerned about the impact of burgeoning development in the area, they persuaded Bevins to support a downzoning of the quarry site to the “environmental enhancement” (RC8) zoning classification, a restrictive classification intended to protect areas of environmental significance.
Industrial and commercial uses are generally not permitted on land zoned as RC8. The PUD, however, calls for construction of an industrial/office park with e-commerce warehouses, which would generate the amount of truck traffic residents fear most. The proposal would enhance the fortunes of the developer, not the quality of the environment.
The life-or-death power over a PUD informally bestowed on a single member of the council through councilmanic courtesy is unlike the power given to any other county official. Decisions by administrative officials approving or denying various forms of development are subject to appeal and can be overturned. There is no appeal of a decision by a council member on whether or not to introduce a resolution approving a PUD.
Giving such power to a member of the council defies the concept established by the County Charter that the legislative powers of the Council are to be exercised collectively. And it is an absolute invitation to corruption, including the “soft corruption” of the type represented by the county’s well-known pay-to-play system, in which builders, developers and other special interests contribute heavily to the campaign accounts of elected officials in hopes of currying their favor.
The PUD process is one of several land use processes in the county actually designed to create opportunities for political opportunism via the practice of councilmanic courtesy, setting up council members as land use czars within their districts. Another is the method of doing comprehensive rezoning, known as the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process. But the worst may be the council’s practice of rezoning individual parcels of land through a process of doubtful legality referred to by critics as “legislative spot zonings.” The process places individual council members in the role of brokering deals for the rezoning on specific pieces of property that can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to property owners and developers.
The cumulative effect of councilmanic courtesy on land use and development in Baltimore County has been enormous. It has resulted in the improvident waiver of impact fees and open space requirements and in ill-conceived development that overwhelms public facilities, including roads, streets, stormwater management facilities, sewers and schools.
Even County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., who usually avoids criticizing the council’s land use decisions, called into question the approval of the Middle River Park PUD and the practice of councilmanic courtesy in general. According to Mr. Olszewski, “we should be looking at these issues holistically,” with the entire council engaged in trying “to develop a path forward.”
Telling the council to do better isn’t enough. The county executive must push for the reform of laws to make them less susceptible to corruption by councilmanic courtesy. The council’s shameful approval of the Middle River Park PUD indicates that the disease itself isn’t going away any time soon.
David Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County Attorney in 2014 and lives in Catonsville. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dplymyer.