Center Maryland Policy Spotlight Series: Land (Mis)Use, Part I

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Overview: Here at Center Maryland, we’ve long been believers in a simple idea: in order to connect readers, voters, and decision-makers with the facts, you have to separate those facts from partisan identity, geographic favoritism, or agenda. And while our motto – “News Straight Down The Middle” – is all about inclusiveness and fairness, it also suggests a certain spirit of honest inquisitiveness; instead of occupying an echo chamber, we’re interested in exploring the tough issues and examining both sides of an argument before coming to a conclusion.

It’s in that spirit that we’re launching our Policy Spotlight Series, a way for Center Maryland to provide written insight into the difficult and critical issues facing our state and in our region. In the past, we’ve used different vehicles to explore these issues – our Inside The Headlines video series has tackled pressing news, our Inside Out video series has introduced readers to the decision makers, business executives, and non-profit leaders who shape much of our public policy discussion, and our Market People video series has examined the way Baltimore’s emerging food scene is impacting our local economy.  

Part I

For our first Policy Spotlight Editorial Series – which we’ve titled Land (Mis)Use – we address the complicated (and often heated) issue of land use in Baltimore County. At the heart of the issue is a contradiction between what Baltimore County zoning should be (a planned, community-inclusive process) and, sadly, what it has recently become (an overly complicated tapestry Planned United Developments, “minor revisions,” councilmanic courtesy, and “amended plans”). Too often, this patchwork approach has given favored local developers an inside track against master planning principles.

We can see this clearly in White Marsh. While the County’s planning and policy arms suggest parts of Baltimore County are OVER-retailed, recent legislation sponsored by Councilmembers Bevins and Quirk literally paves the way for a new outlet mall in the area at a time when a community challenge is under review by the Baltimore County Board of Appeals.

Land use laws matter a great deal, as they impact everything from where and how we shop to the value of our homes, where we work, our ability to travel within our neighborhoods, and the ability of our communities to grow and thrive. It is too important of an issue to be left to an ad hoc process, one that threatens to undermine the once thoughtful and considered zoning review (the Comprehensive Zoning and Mapping Process, or CZMP). This review, which takes place every four years, is slated to begin again this August.

Center Maryland’s founders – in public and professional life – have long been for a smart review of policy surrounding the County’s growth areas, especially aging malls.  In our view, the developers of the new outlet mall should refrain from moving forward until after the community has spoken through the CZMP process. We further believe that Councilmembers Bevins and Quirk erred in the promotion of their summer-session legislation, which allows these developers to bypass the normal review and appeals process. It robs citizens of what is truly needed in this instance: a community-led conversation about the future of White Marsh, along with the future of Baltimore County. Overall, what the County needs is a more considered and comprehensive zoning process that helps assure existing residents and businesses that the process isn’t rigged against them.

It’s worth noting that advocates on both sides of the issue have used exaggerated rhetoric to make their case. Those in favor of the legislation (including Councilmembers Bevin and Quirk) have made the argument that the area needs the jobs that accompany new development and that Baltimore County must been seen as being open to new businesses. While opponents have noted that the developer (Paragon Outlet Partners) and its executives have donated $5,000 to the campaign account of Councilmember Bevin, thus raising the possibility of impropriety.

We find difficulty with both arguments. White Marsh is nothing if not impressively and significantly developed as-is, with a host of employment and shopping opportunities for both workers and residents. More than most areas, this growth center is in need of some master planning, like the community led effort in Downtown Columbia. Community groups have repeatedly raised issues impacting traffic, the environmental impact on Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, land acquisition for schools, and other not-insignificant concerns. They have argued (we believe correctly) that the minor economic development bump seen as a result of a new outlet mall would be significantly outweighed by a negative impact on quality of life for the community and existing businesses in the corridor.

We also find it difficult to believe that Councilmember Bevins has been acting simply to improve the financial standing of a major donor. Certainly elected officials are free to accept contributions from groups with interests before their legislative bodies, although the County has long tried to separate campaign finance from zoning decisions (Councilmembers adhere to an ethic of not raising campaign funds during CZMP, for example). What is more troubling than the money trail is the insistence on rushing legislation to move a development already in appeal; all with the comprehensive zoning process just weeks away. This legislation makes it appear as though Councilmembers Bevins and Quirk are attempting to set certain rules for contributors and other rules for the rest of us – an appearance of special influence which degrades the integrity of the process.  

The Council scheduled a public hearing for the bill today, July 28th, at 2pm, during a summer midday session. It is not surprising that community members, many of whom will be at work while the Council is deliberating, feel that this is an insufficient work-around of the established 4-year zoning review – one that gives them little input into an important process. Center Maryland has long encouraged more process surrounding the future of these growth areas and is inclined to agree with the community and existing businesses.

We would encourage the members of the Council to consider the impact of this legislation – legislation which may provide an uncomfortable and unfortunate precedent of leaving the community out of a critical zoning process while developers and other connected interests get an inside track of influence and decision making.

Note: Part II of this series will focus on the history of Baltimore County’s legislative zoning process – examining the ways in which the County has been a leader in comprehensive zoning. Part III will focus on the region’s various zoning processes and suggest new solutions for White Marsh.

Disclosure: Center Maryland has a partnership with a number of businesses, commercial partners, and community groups that have existing interests in Baltimore County policy issues, including development.

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