Last month, when Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman sought to kill a bill regulating the content of vending machines on county property, we noted that it takes a special kind of certitude to veto legislation that had passed by a veto-proof, 5-2 majority. Never one to be outdone in the certitude department, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz this week vetoed a much more obscure piece of legislation related to the development process that had passed the County Council 7-0 two days earlier.
Bill 54-15 sounds innocuous enough. It deals with projects approved through the county's planned unit development process, which is supposed to be a way to allow high-quality development that doesn't precisely conform to existing zoning, but would nonetheless benefit the community. In fact, the law spells out exactly what kinds of community benefits are required for a PUD to be approved. A development could be environmentally friendly or employ particularly high quality design or materials. It could be accompanied by a capital improvement to nearby public property or volunteer fire company, or it could achieve policy goals like boosting a commercial revitalization district or providing workforce housing. The legislation, sponsored by Councilman Julian E. Jones, would add another possibility: "a monetary contribution to a school or school program, a parent-teacher association, a senior center or a recreation council that serves the residents of the Planned Unit Development."
There would be a perfectly good policy rationale to veto that legislation. The benefits outlined in existing law are of a permanent nature and thus offset whatever harms a development might pose on a permanent basis. A monetary contribution could be a one-time even that wouldn't necessarily benefit the entire surrounding community. A letter from County Attorney Michael E. Field that accompanied Mr. Kamenetz's veto notes just those points. But they are neither the crux of Mr. Field's analysis nor the reason Mr. Kamenetz gave for his action.
Rather, the rationale goes like this: Baltimore County's ethics code and the state ethics code it is required to follow say "a public official may not directly solicit or facilitate the solicitation of a gift, on behalf of another person, from an individual registered lobbyist." The "monetary contribution" in the PUD bill, Mr. Field argues, could be construed as a "gift," and since, he writes, "it is no secret that registered lobbyists do most of the legwork on these PUDs," the legislation would "effectively allow the solicitation of a 'gift' from registered lobbyists 'on behalf of another person.'"
Although Mr. Field did not raise his objections when the legislation was introduced, debated, amended or voted on, Mr. Kamenetz evidently found them persuasive, writing Wednesday that the bill "does not comport with the spirit and intent of the Baltimore County ethics law."
As is usually the case with squabbles between the branches of government in Towson, there's another layer to the story. Mr. Jones says he introduced the bill after working on some small PUDs in his district that weren't large enough to support any kind of meaningful capital benefit for the community. As a former PTA president, he said he was familiar with the struggles such organizations have in raising money and knew that an amount that's insignificant in the development world could make a real difference to them. He saw this as a way he could use the development process to steer some funds their way. But steering funds is not something, under Baltimore County's division of powers, that councilmen can ordinarily do. That's county executive turf.
Regardless whatever motivations and intentions the various players in this drama had, Mr. Kamenetz's veto is on solid ground and should be upheld. PUDs are forever, and so too should be their community benefits. But while the executive is in the business of policing county legislation for good land use policy, he should take a look at another bill that passed Monday, also on a 7-0 vote: Bill 53-15, Zoning Regulations — Regional Outlet Shopping Center. On the surface, it's a bill to amend countywide zoning use definitions to specify the acceptability of a regional outlet mall in certain areas, but in reality, it's designed to benefit one project: the proposed outlet mall in White Marsh.
We take no position on the project itself — supporters and opponents both have valid points — but as a matter of good governance, this bill fails on two counts. First, zoning law should be driven by general principles of sound planning, not an effort to approve or kill a particular project. And second, this development proposal has been enmeshed in protracted administrative and appeals board hearings, and this bill amounts to changing the rules in the middle of the game. If this project deserves to be built on the merits, it can win approval through the existing process. While Mr. Kamenetz has his veto pen handy, he should strike this one down, too.