Developer Stranglehold Grows in Baltimore County

By David Plymyer.

The Baltimore County Council seems gripped by a wave of nostalgia for the days of Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson, former Baltimore County executives convicted of corruption. The council is stretching the limits of state law in an effort to install its seven members as de facto zoning czars in their respective districts. It is turning land use planning, zoning, and development review into the county’s version of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

Two recent bills indicate that the problem is getting worse. Nothing other than a strong grassroots movement will reverse the trend. 

The council’s MO is to arrogate to itself decisions on the use and development of specific properties that exceed its proper authority. Those decisions are then turned over to individual council members through the practice of “councilmanic courtesy.”

Councilmanic courtesy

Councilmanic courtesy refers to deference given to the wishes of the councilmember in whose district the subject property is located. Councilmanic courtesy is sacrosanct in Baltimore County.

Councilmanic courtesy does with a wink and a nod what cannot be done by law. Under the law, legislative powers of the council must be exercised collectively and cannot be delegated to individual members. The Baltimore County Council apparently regards that law, as it does other laws, as a mere formality.

A lot of money can ride on the decision about the type of development allowed on a parcel of land. The councilmember who controls that decision is in a position to reward friends and punish enemies. Giving that kind of power to individual politicians is asking for trouble.

Two years ago, I described how councilmanic courtesy increased the risk of corruption in the county’s mechanism for doing comprehensive zoning, called the comprehensive zoning map process (CZMP). The practice also wreaks havoc on individual land use decisions.  

The increasing politicization of land use decisions

Bill 46-21 implemented a deal struck by the owner of a 1.49-acre parcel of land with neighbors for zoning regulations unique to the parcel that allowed construction of age-restricted condominiums which otherwise would not be permitted. The consensus came at considerable cost.

The council agreed to exempt the condos from impact fees and routine review by county agencies for compliance with environmental and other codes. As pointed out by NeighborSpace of Baltimore County in opposition to the bill, such measures are necessary to assure economically and environmentally sustainable development in the county.

State law requires that the council zone land through a “comprehensive” process that results in adoption of zoning maps, which the county does once every four years. Once maps are adopted, however, the council may not tweak the zoning of individual properties. “Piecemeal” rezonings are decided by hearing officers after adjudicatory hearings in which neighbors have the right to contest the rezonings.

Bill 46-21 was an example of how the council routinely tries to skirt the prohibition against legislative piecemeal rezoning by “customizing” the uses allowed on individual properties without actually changing the zoning classification of the properties. As it happens, the bill also violated the prohibition against negotiating the substance of zoning decisions, called “contract zoning.”

The bill was opposed not only by environmental and open space activists but also by affordable housing advocates. Siting age-restricted condos by consensus is easy. Siting less popular uses such as affordable rental housing is not. The process represented by Bill 46-21 pits one neighborhood against the other, and only the developers win.  

The hopes that County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. would take a stand against the bill were in vain. He chose neither to approve or veto the bill, allowing it to become law by his inaction. His silence on the bill speaks volumes about the inclinations of his administration.     

Bill 58-21 would change the law governing planned unit developments (PUDs). A PUD allows a more creative approach to development than permitted by strict application of zoning requirements. Density limits, setbacks and other regulations may be modified if the result is a higher quality development than would result from strict application of requirements.

The Baltimore County Council is more involved in the approval and modification of individual PUDs than any other city or county council in Maryland. In most jurisdictions, PUD approval begins with professional staff review and requires final approval by a hearing officer or zoning board based on satisfaction of objective criteria enacted by the city or county council. The city or county council plays no role in approving individual PUDs, however.   

The Baltimore County Council apparently has not read the part of the county charter where it says that the job of the council is to make laws and the job of executive branch officials is to implement them. A PUD application requires approval by the council to move forward, and the council is free to make modifications to the PUD.

Bill 58-21 purports to insulate modifications made to a PUD by the council from legal challenge on the basis that they do not conform to the county’s master plan even though all development must conform to a county’s master plan under state law. It is sheer arrogance.

Conclusion

The council is overstepping its proper role for one reason and one reason only: To create the opportunity for individual members of the council to exploit their control over what can be done on specific parcels of land for political or other advantage.

I leave to the imagination what that “other advantage” could be. Suffice to say that county residents who forget the lessons of the county’s inglorious history of corruption may be doomed to repeat it.

The trend toward devaluing master planning and professional decision-making, and politicizing as many land use and development decisions as possible, should alarm residents. It is especially troubling because the inordinate influence that builders and developers have over county regulatory agencies has continued into the Olszewski administration.

In other words, the stranglehold that builders and developers have over how land is used and properties are developed in the county is growing stronger. Loosening that stranglehold will require concerted action by residents.      

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