Recently, many area residents have been approached while entering grocery stores, shopping malls, movie theaters, and other busy places, and are being asked to sign a petition to "give the citizens a voice" in land use decisions in Baltimore County. The purpose of these petitions is to refer the recently adopted zoning maps for the 2nd 6th districts to the voting ballot.
I believe that elected officials have a responsibility to be a voice for the people they represent, and to be open, honest, and responsive to the interests of the community, no matter what the issue is. Ultimately, if the voters disagree with the County Council’s zoning decisions then I believe they should have their say, but I also believe it is important that folks know the truth about what they are being asked to sign.
Unfortunately, many of the petition gatherers are using false and/or misleading information to collect the signatures—touting the petitions as a way to “take developers out of the zoning process” and to “let the citizens decide” how zoning is applied in Baltimore County. What they are not telling them is that the referendum effort is being funded by developers who did not get their way during the 2012 Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP) and are now trying to manipulate the process, repeal the zoning maps, and overturn district zoning decisions that ultimately benefit the community.
Petition gatherers claim that the current zoning process is “a broken process” and that the zoning decisions were made behind closed doors, without the input of community residents. However, the truth is quite the opposite.
The CZMP is a lengthy process with several phases, multiple public hearings, and community meetings and dialog factor largely into each and every decision. At the conclusion of the process, a revised zoning map is adopted for each of the seven councilmanic districts. While there is certainly room for improvement in many areas of land use regulation, in my opinion, the zoning process in Baltimore County is far from broken. In fact, if it is indeed a broken process, then it is the process that ought to be challenged, and if it was defective, the maps in all seven districts would be targeted.
Instead, the developers pushing this disingenuous referendum campaign have chosen to focus only on the areas where there were zoning decisions that did not go their way—specifically in the 2nd and the 6th istricts. In the 2nd district, on the west side, it is all about the former Solo Cup property. Here in the 6th district, it is the 65-acre site of the Middle River Depot on Eastern Boulevard. The location and specifics of the two sites differ, but the main theme is quite the same. A hijacking of the county's zoning process to avoid potential competition.
On the east side, the target of the referendum drive is the Middle River Depot, but the referendum would actually impact the entire 6th district zoning map, placing all 43 zoning decisions in jeopardy.
Even before the CZMP began, I began reaching out to community groups throughout the district ,seeking input on all of the issues, not the least of which was the future of the Middle River Depot. The property has been sitting in its run-down state for many years, and residents constantly inquired about the future and redevelopment potential of that property. There was discussion about whether the property ought to be rezoned, or whether it should be redeveloped as a Planned Unit Development (PUD), but there was not any opposition from the communities regarding redevelopment of the site as a mixed-use project.
Ultimately, the depot property was rezoned from heavy manufacturing/ industrial zoning (MH IM) to business major zoning (BM CT), which will allow for a $210 million mixed-use redevelopment of the site and bring thousands of jobs to the area.
The proposed uses include retail, professional office, medical, sports and entertainment venues, among other attractions. The owners have been working hard to develop plans, secure leases, and incorporate the local aviation, rail, and waterfront atmosphere to the project. With the support of my office, they have repeatedly reached out to the community to gain feedback about their plans. Dozens of community groups have held meetings specifically to discuss “wants” and “don’t-wants” for the project, and in the end, I am confident that the BM CT zoning that was approved is the most appropriate zone to accommodate the community’s vision for the site.
Unfortunately, although the council’s CZMP decisions reflected the overwhelming desire of the community, a few wealthy developers with nearby projects are working to stall progress, after the fact, in order to delay any other development that may bring new competition in their market. Unfortunately, signatures from all over Baltimore County can be used to decide the future of zoning and development in the 6th district.
If the petition drive is successful, the zoning maps will be placed on the ballot in 2014, potentially delaying any new development or reinvestment in the affected communities for at least the next two years.
If you are approached by someone asking for your signature for any petition, be cautious, read the petition carefully, and be sure you know the facts about what you are being asked to sign.