By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
8:00 AM EDT, July 6, 2011
The Baltimore County Council approved significant changes on Tuesday evening to a land development approach that has often drawn fire from community activists, a move that council members said would stop bad projects early and make the development process more open.
At the same time, the council reversed itself and revived a planned unit development project in Catonsville that has already received poor reviews from county planning and environmental agencies. The council voted in May to kill the Thistle Landing project, which calls for 10 townhouses off Frederick Road, the main thoroughfare through the Catonsville town center.
Councilman David Marks of Perry Hall, who helped draft the PUD revisions along with the Councilman Tom Quirk of Catonsville and Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. of Dundalk, said he hoped the changes “weed out bad PUD proposals.”
Olszewski said the revisions should make the process “more community friendly.”
The revisions move up several steps in the approval process, requiring individual council members to hear comments from members of the community and from county agencies before they submit their bills to the full council for approval. The council’s approval then would set the stage for further review and a final decision by the hearing officer.
Under current rules, council approval comes first, launching the formal approval process. Critics of the PUD process have said that council approval has exerted too much sway in the past, overwhelming whatever objections community members or county agency staff members might raise.
Donna Spicer of the Loch Raven area, a frequent critic of the PUD approval process, said the changes “make it tremendously better,” allowing council members to make more informed decisions. She said some community activists suggested these changes several years ago to Kevin Kamenetz, then a coucil member and now county executive, who helped draft several PUD revisions.
Revised several times since it first appeared in the county in the 1970s, the PUD process allows developers exemptions to zoning regulations in exchange for some benefit to the community. Those benefits could include improvements to a local park, providing senior housing, or using higher-grade building materials or environmentally progressive design.
Supporters say PUDs allow necessary flexibility in designing projects, especially those that mix uses, such as homes and shops. Critics say they give away too much to developers in exchange for little in return.
Quirk introduced a measure in May to revoke the Thistle Landing PUD, a proposal by Dimitri’s Properties LLC calling for 10 single-family townhouses on less than two acres behind Dimitri’s International Grille restaurant.
Quirk said the claimed benefit of “workforce housing” — homes for people who meet income requirements — made no sense given that the homes were going to sell for more than $300,000. He said the project was not suited to the property’s steep slots and environmental characteristics. The land includes stream buffers and lies next to Patapcso Valley State Park.
The developer chose to go through the PUD process because the zoning there allows commercial, not residential, development. The proposal was approved by the council last September after it was introduced by Quirk’s predecessor, S.G. Samuel Moxley.
But Quirk, who began his first term in December, said that the approval was a mistake. He pointed to critical reports from the Office of Planning and Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability.
The environmental agency said the plans fell short in addressing the effect on environmentally sensitive land on the property. The planning staff went further, saying that the site “is not of a quality that is harmonious with or complements sound planning principles for reasonable and practical development.”
Quirk introduced his bill to revoke approval shortly before the council session in May. In keeping with the custom of councilmanic courtesy — in which members are allowed to have their say on zoning matters in their own districts — the council approved Quirk’s measure unanimously and without discussion.
Activists such as Spicer and councilman Marks give Quirk a lot of credit for pointing out flaws in the PUD process, but some of his colleagues had second thoughts about the revocation.
Weeks after their vote on Thistle Landing, Olszewski and Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver introduced a bill to reverse the May vote, saying there had not been enough time to consider Quirk’s resolution before the vote.
That measure was amended with the changes to the PUD process, and approved last night 6-1, with Quirk dissenting. He told the council he approved of the changes to the process, but could not support the legislation as a whole, as it nullifies his attempt to stop the Thistle Landing project.
Under the new rules, he said perhaps his predecessor “would have thought twice about introducing the resolution on Thistle Landing. Out of this we get a better process.”
Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun