Eastern Baltimore County residents say a bill before the County Council could open the door to poorly planned development on a key tract in the Middle River area near Route 43.
"Let's work on a better bill, please," said Allen Robertson, president of the Bowleys Quarters Community Association, during a council work session Tuesday. Robertson said his group wants the council to withdraw or table the legislation.
The measure, proposed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's administration, would allow residential development on part of an 800-acre tract near White Marsh Boulevard that is now zoned for industrial use. County leaders once hoped the site would attract major employers.
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It also would give the county Planning Department or an administrative law judge the power to waive any county laws, regulations, requirements or policies related to the property's zoning or development.
County officials said the bill is meant to promote mixed-use development on the tract. It could present a "transformative opportunity for the east side of Baltimore County," planning director Andrea Van Arsdale told council members.
The measure would allow residential development, including multifamily units, on 30 percent of the 800-acre tract.
Robertson said his community does not oppose housing in the area, but he doesn't want the council to open the door to development without a plan. In a letter submitted to the council, he said the area is being "bombarded" by development requests, and he's concerned that waivers of rules could lead to a patchwork of projects.
"We need to learn from the errors of past development strategies which have resulted in over-development, abused areas and vacant commercial property throughout the county, which is now in need of major revitalization," Robertson wrote.
The council is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday, but members said they are drawing up amendments they hope will alleviate residents' concerns.
Under changes planned by Council Chairman Tom Quirk and Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, any waiver would still have to meet development standards set out in county law, said Tom Peddicord, the council's secretary and legal counsel.
Kimberly Golden Brandt, local policy director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said the amendment would be "a huge improvement." Brandt, whose nonprofit organization advocates Smart Growth across the state, said without that protection, "we really just felt that was going too far, that it was too broad."
The area targeted in the bill was designated for economic development more than a decade ago, when planners called it the largest piece of underdeveloped, industrially zoned land in the county. Nearly $76 million was spent on the 3.8-mile extension of Route 43, according to the State Highway Administration. The extension, a four-lane highway between U.S. 40 and Eastern Boulevard, opened in 2006.
The road was meant to open land for industrial uses. County and community leaders also expected the area to attract business because of the federal base realignment plan.
"It was supposed to be the major employer for the county," Van Arsdale said. "And with the loss of Sparrows Point and this not coming to fruition, the east side is really feeling hit."
The county auditor's analysis of the bill states that when the initial plan was created, people believed residential development near industrial areas would hinder the growth of industry, but now many people want to live in mixed-use neighborhoods that combine housing with workplaces, retail and other uses.