Friday, January 19, 2024

A bill that could make zoning more inclusive

In recent years planners have become much more aware of the exclusionary effects that zoning has had on people and their towns and cities. In response cities and jurisdictions across America have started to implement tools that dismantle segregation and exclusion and instead promote integration and inclusion in terms of use, race, age and access. The old zoning separated neatly housing from everything else presumably in the interest of public health. When business meant smoke, fire and noise it made sense to not live immediately next to a foundry. But over time zoning also segregated people to the point that zip codes gave away income, race, life expectancy and school success. 

Baltimore County: report for Security Square Mall redevelopment

At the same time the supply of these single use land areas got entirely out of whack with demand: The country is totally oversupplied with commercial and retail areas in a time when online shopping and global production have put the squeeze on retail and commercial operations.

Dismantling the legacy zoning system is no small task.  Especially those who benefited the most from the segregation and many hurdles against new housing protest the loudest, usually with innocent sounding arguments such as traffic, sewer capacity and school overcrowding. All across America those arguments have blocked especially affordable housing production to the point we have a national housing crisis and record homelessness. 

All this plays out in Baltimore County, which actually signed an agreement with HUD in 2016 that forces the County to face a history of housing discrimination. So far, the County is far behind with compliance.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced in mid-March 2016 a settlement agreement with Maryland’s Baltimore County to expand affordable housing in high-opportunity areas.
The settlement is a result of a complaint filed with HUD by the NAACP Baltimore Branch, Baltimore Neighborhoods, and three individuals in November 2011. The complaint claimed that the county had only developed in areas concentrated by race and poverty, focused on rental housing for seniors rather than families, provided an inadequate amount of accessible units for people with disabilities, and failed to affirmatively further fair housing.
Baltimore County will invest $3 million annually for 10 years to develop or preserve 1,000 affordable housing units that will be geographically dispersed in neighborhoods with access to opportunity for low- and very low-income residents, stated the agreement. The county also will provide at least 2,000 Housing Choice Vouchers to assist families in finding housing in higher-opportunity neighborhoods. (HUD)

This month the County Executive dared to introduce a bill that would allow residential use "by-right" in certain business zones. The bill would work in tandem with the new 2030 Masterplan which recognizes the need for "retrofit" in lieu of paving over more of the dwindling open space.

Baltimore County Masterplan: To be approved by Council

The Masterplan identifies retrofit nodes in older communities and along commercial corridors where vast areas sit fallow or underused. Baltimore County won a State award for this masterplan.

Baltimore County Department of Planning created a thorough and data-driven approach to “Retrofit Mapping,” which was essential to and incorporated into the Growth Framework of their Draft Master Plan 2030. Gathering significant public input, this initiative has meaningfully advanced the community’s involvement in promoting smart growth and sustainable communities, and has produced a path to supporting intensified land uses in the area.​

Allowing residential use in those B zones inside the Masterplan nodes, which so far prohibit residential uses, is a shot in the arm of those ailing and underperforming areas by allowing a use that is in demand instead of mandating uses that have no market. It will also greatly help the County to comply with the federal housing mandate. 

This is a big deal once one understands how much land is designated for commercial uses in Baltimore County. The US has 2-3 times as much retail square footage than Canada and about 5 times as much as England and Baltimore County with its older suburbs and endless radial arterials emanating from the City is a great example of the oversupply of gas stations, strip shopping, car dealers and abandoned drive throughs which represent the "Geography of Nowhere" which characterizes current suburbia way too much. 

For lease: Sprawl land use on Liberty Road 

Baltimore County which wisely protected its rural areas from widespread development is soon running out of the easy but unsustainable option of paving over farmland and forests. Opening up land that sits fallow or underperforming in sad looking commercial corridors and decaying malls seems like a no-brainer. The inflexibility of current zoning gave rise to a practice in which almost every redevelopment project has to go through either a planned unit development (PUD) or a formal rezoning process. Either way, this procedure gives the council person of the district the last word. This practices opens the door to long periods of bargaining and horse-trading in which neither communities nor developers can predict the outcome. One of the council members stated that current practice gives him much more power to prevent stuff than to enable it. If community organizations are just noisy enough, the councilperson will not approve rezoning or a PUD. Developers have to bribe their way towards PUDs through so called "community benefits" that can be narrowly tailored towards the loudest opponents. Obviously, folks that gamed this current system successfully are not pleased with the suggested bill and make the wildest accusations:

If this bill is passed by the council, it will be a complete insult and slap in the face to how this country’s democracy was formed. Olszewski’s introduction of this bill is grossly unethical and immoral. His “vision” for Baltimore County is not in the best interests of the citizens he swore to represent honestly, in good faith and more. His proposed bill is unprecedented in the history of the county and goes against the county charter. (Letter in the SUN)

Of course, many other jurisdictions have long adjusted their zoning to allow more flexibility in the permitted uses and still have a democracy. The introduced bill clearly serves the interest of citizens: The current reactive process doesn't allow rational and forward looking planning that responds to the many major fiscal, sustainability, equity and economic development challenges the County faces. Baltimore County's development pattern is often haphazard  devoid of a larger logic, strategic investment and funding priorities and will not lead the County into a prosperous future. 

Opening certain zones up for residential use and redevelopment "by right" makes sense and ultimately strengthens communities.  It is obvious that the bill is a hard sell to the seven councilmen who think that they will lose some control and whose vote is needed to make the bill law. In fact, even by-right developments have to go through a lengthy review process includes site plan review, that in many cases design review, and review of adequate public facilities. One has to hope the new Council Chair, who is a planner by training, and the County Housing and Community Development Director can explain  that for a successful future Baltimore County needs a longer and wider view than the four year election cycle and the myopic district view. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

related on this blog

Jan 2023: Why Lovely Suburbia...

Sept. 2020: Rethinking Planning in Baltimore County 

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