By David Plymyer.
Anyone unfamiliar with the extensive history of corruption in Baltimore County should read Eyes of Justice, the recently published book by James Cabezas, a long-time investigator for the Maryland State Prosecutor. Baltimore County’s quadrennial “Comprehensive Zoning Map Process” (CZMP) is a throwback to that checkered past, when government actions like zoning changes were bought and sold. The CZMP must be replaced with a process more in harmony with state law and less vulnerable to corruption.
The most recent CZMP began in August and concludes next year. During the CZMP the county solicits requests for zoning changes from property owners and contract purchasers seeking to develop their properties. Each requested zoning change is voted upon separately by the county council, something that is unique to Baltimore County – and fraught with opportunity for abuse.
Baltimore County has the cart (zoning) before the horse (planning)
Maryland law requires a county to adopt a “master plan” updated at least once every ten years. The CZMP defies the mandate under state law that land use decisions made by a county council are to be based on a county’s master plan, not on the wants and desires of individual property owners and prospective developers as too often is the case in Baltimore County.
By law, the master plan must address issues such as the regulation of land use and development and needed improvements to public facilities. It must contain goals and objectives that “serve as a guide for the development and economic and social well-being” of the county. A master plan is implemented through zoning maps and laws and by subdivision and other regulations consistent with the plan.
Other counties use their master plans to establish long-term strategies for managing growth. Not Baltimore County, where master planning historically has been anemic.
The county’s master plan update is also due next year. The fact that the county is evaluating proposed zoning changes right before its master plan is updated tells you just how little regard the county has for master planning. Time and effort that planning staff should be spending on the master plan is being spent on the CZMP. Master planning in Baltimore County is, almost literally, an afterthought.
The CZMP stretches the limits of Maryland law
The Maryland Court of Appeals has held that legislative rezoning must be done “comprehensively.” In the words of the court, it must be “well thought out, the product of careful consideration and extensive study, and based upon considerations concerning the common needs of the particular area.” Although the area of reference during a comprehensive rezoning process need not consist of the entire county, the area must be substantial in size and certainly not limited to a single parcel.
The CZMP is “comprehensive” in name only. It makes a farce out of state law intended to ensure that local governments base zoning decisions on common needs. Rather than start with the big picture of what is best for all citizens in an area of the county, the CZMP begins with the narrow interests of prospective developers.
Crumbs occasionally are thrown to community groups, but that does not change the overall focus of the CZMP, which is on owners and contract purchasers seeking to make more profitable uses of their properties. Community groups find themselves on the defensive, scrambling to resist changes that would harm their neighborhoods.
The “dashboard” recently launched by the county to help citizens monitor zoning change requests improves the transparency of the process. It does not, however, change the basic, flawed nature of the CZMP.
“Pay to play” in Baltimore County
It has been decades since Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign from office because of tax evasion charges related to kickbacks that he received from engineers who got no-bid contracts while he was Baltimore County Executive. Or since his successor as county executive, Dale Anderson, was convicted of extorting almost $40,000 from contractors doing work for the county. I am not suggesting that type of corruption is still prevalent.
There is, however, another type of corruption that remains problematic, and that is so-called legal or “soft” corruption, better known in Baltimore County as “pay to play.” Land developers and other special interests curry favor with elected officials through generous contributions to their political campaigns. Soft corruption occurs when officials make decisions based on those contributions rather than on the common good.
Oguzhan Dincer, associate professor and director of the Institute for Corruption Studies at Illinois State University, studies patterns of corruption across the country. He recently told Capital News Service that when it comes to illegal corruption like bribery and fraud, Maryland is “kind of in the middle of the road” among other states. On the other hand, when it comes to soft corruption — unethical acts without actual criminality — Dincer stated that “Maryland is very corrupt,” describing the situation as “quite alarming.”
Dincer’s conclusion would not surprise Baltimore County voters. Their disgust with the pay to play culture in Baltimore County played a prominent role in the 2018 county executive race, especially in the Democratic primary.
The CZMP is part of that pay to play system. The vulnerability of the CZMP to corruption is self-evident; a lot of money in land development potential can ride on a single zoning change.
The risk of corruption in the CZMP is even greater because of the strong tradition of “councilmanic courtesy” that prevails in Baltimore County. Other council members typically defer to the wishes of the member in whose district a property under consideration for rezoning is located. The CZMP therefore bestows a lot of power on individual members of the county council. And it won’t be easy to persuade them to part with that power.
In 2017, responding to growing complaints about the pay to play culture in county government, the county council passed a bill banning campaign contributions and fundraisers during the one-year period in which the CZMP takes place. Campaign contributions from property owners and prospective developers seeking zoning changes remain lawful, however, as long as they are received before September 1st, when the time for officially filing rezoning requests begins.
In other words, a would-be developer seeking to gain favor with a council member simply has to make a campaign contribution before the formal process begins. The 2017 “solution” to corrupt influence was an insult to citizens’ intelligence.
Time for a change
One of the reasons that the CZMP results in ill-conceived zoning changes is that it occurs far too frequently, multiplying the chances of misadventure. In Howard County and Anne Arundel County, for example, comprehensive rezoning takes place about once every ten years, coordinated with updates to their master plans.
If you believe that it is a coincidence that the four-year CZMP cycle corresponds with the four-year terms of county council members, then I have a bridge over the Patapsco River I’d like to sell to you. The four-year cycle gives every person elected to council at least one opportunity to participate in a CZMP – and to pay off political debts and cultivate new campaign contributors.
Keep in mind that a property owner has the absolute right in between comprehensive rezonings to seek a change in zoning because of a change in the character of a neighborhood, or because of a mistake in the previous comprehensive rezoning, through the administrative rezoning process. There is no justification for a four-year legislative zoning cycle other than the rawest kind of politics.
To any thin-skinned members of the council who believe that I am accusing them of wrongdoing, I say relax: Even assuming that all current members are beyond reproach, the rezoning process should be redesigned to better comport with state law and to reduce temptation for any future members who may be less ethical than you are.
Going forward, the CZMP should be replaced with a truly comprehensive rezoning process that occurs no more than once every ten years, synchronized with updates to the county’s master plan. The time saved should be spent on better planning for the sustainability of future development and the economic and social well-being of the citizens of Baltimore County. For the CZMP already underway, the objective should be to avoid as much damage as possible from politically motivated and improvident zoning changes.
This should be the last hurrah for the CZMP. The sooner this Baltimore County tradition dies, the better.