The Baltimore County Council is set to begin debating the county’s master plan. It’s supposed to be a 10 year road map on how the county will develop.
But it’s already several years overdue and there are those who say the system used to plan Baltimore County’s future is broken.
To use a football analogy, what if the Ravens went into their upcoming game with the Steelers with no game plan. Or better yet, Coach John Harbaugh decided to use a plan from, say, 10 years ago?
That’s sort of what’s happening in Baltimore County as its leaders plan future development. They have an out of date master plan. And right now they are in the big game.
It’s called the CZMP, which stands for the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process.
It comes once every four years, when every piece of property in the county can be rezoned.
“There’ll be probably several hundred zoning issues that have been filed,” said Councilman Izzy Patoka. “And a zoning issue is a request to change the classification of land from one zone to another.”
But those issues were filed under the old 2020 master plan. They had to be filed by November 30.
“There is no master plan in effect,” said Nick Stewart, a co-founder of We The People-Baltimore County, a non-profit that wants predictable, transparent development in Baltimore County. “We are putting the cart before the horse by just going headlong into the CZMP without really addressing our master plan needs first.”
And that matters, according to Stewart, because all that proposed rezoning currently is not tied to a big picture plan. So development projects run the risk of being considered one by one, rather than how they fit into the overall growth in the county.
Stewart said, “We just basically missed the entire opportunity to direct this decade of growth unless we can do something about it.”
Stewart said there’s a bigger, systemic problem. Since the master plan comes up every 10 years and the CZMP every four, they rarely dovetail. Ideally, they would be connected. First pass the master plan then the CZMP quickly follows to tie all of that rezoning to the county’s big picture.
Instead, Stewart said the CZMP is politicized because it begins the year after the County Council is elected.
“That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because there’s nothing really tied to the election cycle except for influence and politics and money that warrant us doing it this way,” Stewart said.
Council members are not allowed to take campaign donations during the CZMP.
Baltimore County Planning Director Steve Lafferty would like the CZMP to happen every 10 years, just like the master plan. He said it isn’t happening because the County Council doesn’t want it.
“The County Council would have to change the current code to allow it to happen on a different cycle and almost to the person they’ve indicated they don’t have any desire to change it,” Lafferty said.
County Council Chairman Julian Jones said the quadrennial rezoning cycle works because the council needs to deal more quickly with changes, citing the effects of the COVID pandemic as an example.
“Four years is a good time and it allows the county to be nimble and adjust to the changing circumstance quicker than someone with a longer, longer cycle,” Jones said.
Councilman David Marks, who represents the fast growing fifth district, which includes White Marsh and Perry Hall, said the CZMP is where he can make his biggest impact.
“I represent an area that’s very environmentally sensitive with a lot of growth and there’s pushback from neighborhoods about where that growth is occurring,” Marks said.
Dealing with growth in Baltimore County is especially challenging because of the URDL, the Urban-Rural Demarcation Line. It divides the county into rural and urban areas. It’s why once you get north of Cockeysville on I-83 you mostly see woods and farmland.
The urban part, basically the area around the city, gets water and sewer services and is where 90% of county residents live. It’s also expected to run out of developable land within 20 years.
“We just don’t have that much open land anymore,” Lafferty said. “That requires a different analysis of where redevelopment and other development should take place.”
That brings us back to the draft 2030 master plan.
It includes some ideas on how to grapple with the shortage of urban land, like reimagining old buildings in some communities so that they work in today’s world.
Councilman Patoka said they need the master plan in place.
“So that as we council members make good land use decisions, we’re following the master plan, there’s some basis for our land use decisions and we implement those through the CZMP,” Patoka said.
The Council has had the proposed master plan for several months without taking action, which miffed County Executive Johnny Olszewski.
“I’m deeply concerned and disappointed that this has not been taken up by the Council,” Olszewski said.
Council Chairman Jones noted that the master plan was late getting to the council from the Olszewski administration and that it will be approved before final decisions are made during the CZMP.
“We want to do due diligence,” Jones said. ‘When it comes to the master plan, I think that’s something we need to really be solely focused on and give it the time and attention that it deserves.”
The Council plans to hold hearings on the master plan this month and pass it in February. The year-long CZMP rezoning process continues through September.
So sticking with that football analogy, the county’s game plan will be in place by halftime.