Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Baltimore's New Zoning - Pass or Fail?

Just when one would have been tempted to call the Transform/Rewrite Baltimore zoning code reform dead (at least as the current City Council is concerned) it rears its head with a strong presence in the Council's hearing schedule.
Active Council in 2013

What exactly is going on? The current Council had set its eyes firmly on finishing the review of the code and get it enacted before a whole new set of council-members come into office and would have to start all over. That shouldn't have been too hard, given that the review started in October 2012. For a look at the arduous journey of the bill click here. In 2014 Councilpresident Jack Young posted this:
he Baltimore City Council has held hearings and work sessions on the text and tables of Bill 12-0152. - Transform Baltimore – Zoning.
The Land Use and Transportation Committee, chaired by Council Vice President Ed Reisinger, worked progressively through the bill by reviewing the text and tables page-by-page. Over the past two years, City Agencies and the general public have participated by raising questions or comments and proposing amendments.
A draft list of amendments for the text and tables of Bill 12-0152 has been posted to the bill’s Legistar page. The page can be accessed by clicking here.
The Land Use Committee will hold a series of voting sessions during September 2015 to vote on amendments. The first two sessions have been announced for September 10 and September 16, 2015. Please refer to the online legislative calendar for the most up-to-date scheduling information:Link to Calendar.
Two years later, this is still where we are. Certainly there seemed to have been little urgency. Nevertheless, the Council's Land Use Committee is slated to look at the zoning maps today. The map amendment list is 66 pages long. The January Text amendments list alone is 22 pages.
Code and maps: Department of Planning website

Developers looking at what is allowed and what not have to look at the current code and then check for the new code what it would say. If it would allow additional height or density, city folks say they would approve it in light of its imminent approval. But lawyers and investors don't like that kind of grey area, they want certainty that counts in court.

Folks who have dealt with the Transform process for the better part of ten years will recall, that the process crawls along on two tracks, the re-write of the code and the maps that anchor where the new zoning definitions actually apply. Sometimes the maps just show the new designations for the old zones, but sometimes the maps really imply re-zoning, meaning that what was the land use before won't be the proposed land use anymore. Industrial land may become commercial or even residential etc. When the council debates enacting the proposed maps it really debates rezoning of specific parcels. Under what circumstances the maps are just maps and when this is truly re-zoning is not entirely clear to me and apparently appears murky to others as well.

Which is why a three concerned citizens wrote a letter to the Council that the maps shouldn't be considered before the code itself is finished. One could consider that request backwards. Doesn't it make a lot more sense to derive a code from a desired outcome (i.e. a map or even a 3-D model of the City that the proposed code is to codify instead of a beautiful code devised in the abstract vacuum of land use legalese?) Denver's zoning reform didn't take that long because that is what they did: First developed a "Blueprint" for the it city and then wrote the code for it. ("Blueprint Denver").

From a letter date 9/6 to the City Council
With Port Covington, the police surveillance, the Minimum Wage bill and a revamped Inclusionary Housing bill all in various stages of review the current City Council is already extremely busy. Should we hold our breath that the zoning bill will finally be pushed out the door four years after it was introduced?  What are the odds?

No doubt, Baltimore needs the new code and it should be passed. It can always be amended, no perfection needed!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Earlier blog article on zoning (Aug 2015): Baltimore Zoning Re-write bogged down with no end in sight