In the News...Setting Boundaries: An in-depth look at how Towson was rezoned

Published Sep 6, 2016
Sep 6, 2016

By: Rachael Pacella

The Baltimore County Council voted last week to adopt a new zoning map for District 5, which includes Towson, that maintains limits on high-density development in the Towson Triangle and allows Goucher College to move forward with a proposal to develop nearly 9 acres on its campus.

The map also sets the boundaries for the new Downtown Towson overlay district, which institutes development rules regulating lighting and environmental standards, along with other issues, in Towson's core, and includes some land north of Fairmount Avenue, such as the land Goucher plans to develop.

The council unanimously approved the District 5 map, as well as all revisions requested by District 5 Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, on Aug. 30.

"I'm very satisfied with the rezoning process," Marks said. "Not only did we respond to many of the community's requests, but I'm very pleased that we preserved a lot of green space throughout greater Towson. At the same time, we still have the capacity to grow in downtown Towson."

The decisions left community groups who initially opposed some zoning changes satisfied, they said. Groups that favored denser development in the Towson Triangle were disappointed, however.

Marks also said he was happy with the 95 acres of land in greater Towson that are now protected through the Neighborhood Commons designation, which he said will help preserve green space. That provision was also important to Bryan Fischer, vice president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, an umbrella group composed of 45 Towson-area community associations.

"We struggle to have adequate open space here in Towson," Fischer said.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz declined to comment on any of the rezoning issues connected to District 5.

"As a former County Councilman he fully respects that land use decisions are the purview of the County Council," county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said.

A host of decisions

Every four years the county hears requests to change the current zoning of properties — thereby changing what can or can't be built on those properties — from residents, business owners and elected officials through its Comprehensive Zoning Map Process. The requests first come before the Baltimore County Department of Planning, which issues a recommendation on each. The Planning Board reviews the requests and holds a public hearing on them, after which it issues its recommendations to the County Council. This year, the council weighed more than 500 zoning requests countywide, including 161 in District 5.

The council issues the final decisions regarding the requests. During an Aug. 30 meeting, council members offered revisions to the Planning Board's recommendations in their districts before casting a final vote to approve the map. Marks agreed with the Planning Board on 21 of the 161 requests in District 5. For every other item, he had to individually offer a change, which was then voted on by the full council, which voted unanimously in favor of Marks on every change.

Under the map the council approved, the Towson Triangle, which is bounded by York Road, Bosley Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard, will not get the denser downtown zoning sought in separate requests from the American Legion Post 22 and DMS Development, which has proposed a student housing complex, 101 York, for a parcel within the Triangle, which the proposed zoning would have bolstered.

Less than two weeks before the council's vote, the Towson Manor Village Association held a meeting about the potential denser downtown zoning in the Triangle, which the group opposed. At the time, Marks had not announced what zoning he would recommend for the land.

Ultimately, Towson Manor got the result it was seeking — the council voted to maintain the current zoning on most of the property, at the behest of Marks.

Towson Manor Village Association President Joe La Bella said he was happy that Marks listened to his community.

"We had to put out a little more effort than I was intending to," La Bella said.

Nancy Hafford, a Planning Board member and executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said she was disappointed with the Triangle decisions. The proposed zoning changes would have fit in with the changing landscape of Towson, she said, where several major redevelopment projects are underway.

"We are an urban environment now," she added.

Although the zoning denial was a setback for the proposed 101 York project, DMS Development can still pursue the project as a Planned Unit Development, which can be built outside of zoning standards provided the project offers a community benefit. According to DMS Development's website, the 101 York project would include 248 apartment for 610 students, as well as a four levels of parking.

Such a development would be perfect for the Triangle, Hafford said, because of its proximity to Towson University.

However, legal challenges to aspects of a preliminary development plan for the 101 York site, which a county administrative law judge approved in 2015, are being appealed to the state's second highest appellate court and awaiting decisions.

Katie Pinheiro, executive director of the Greater Towson Committee, said her group was also disappointed with the council's decision not to grant denser zoning in the Triangle. According to the group's website, Greater Towson Committee "promotes investment in Towson through development and revitalization."

The properties inside the Triangle are a "dilapidated, run-down, underutilized, underdeveloped eyesore," she said Sept. 2. "It truly needs to be revitalized."

'Ready for a battle'

The council also approved the rezoning Goucher College requested for nearly 9 acres of campus land, after the college and neighboring communities reached a covenant that limits the type of development that can occur on the property, according to Marks. A preliminary plan for the parcel posted on the college's website includes a hotel, residences and a conference center, as well as a parking garage. Those uses are approved under the covenant; uses such as service stations are prohibited, according to Marks.

At first, some of the residents of neighboring communities opposed the change because Goucher had not released a plan for the property. This summer, Marks and representatives from Towsongate Condominiums, Edenwald Retirement Community and Goucher College sat down together to develop the restrictions.

The negotiations didn't go well at first, Towsongate Condominiums buildings and grounds committee chair Roger Gookin said; neighbors were concerned about the complex's potential impact on traffic, and that Goucher might simply sell the property to a developer.

"We were ready for a battle," Gookin said.

Marks forced all parties back into negotiation, Gookin said. The covenant was finalized and signed the day before the council voted on zoning changes.

"Ultimately it was resolved in a way that was satisfactory for the communities here," Gookin said.

The college sought the zoning so it could build a complex and lease the space as a way to produce additional revenue, college officials said. Leasing the space would allow the college to maintain control over the property, the school's president, José Bowen, said in a letter posted on the school's website about two weeks before the council's vote.

Bowen said he was pleased with the council's decision in a Sept. 1 statement, adding that the college would now hire a consultant to manage the next phases in the project's development. A spokeswoman for Goucher said there is no timeline for the project yet.

"This was an important first step in the process," Bowen said. "We believe that we can develop this land in a way that will benefit both the campus and the community."

Fischer, of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said that the deal impressed him.

"It's the spirit of democracy; it's negotiation, it's compromise," Fischer said.

In its Aug. 30 vote, the council also set the boundaries of the new Downtown Towson overlay district, which was created through a Marks-sponsored bill the council passed Aug. 1. The district covers roughly 250 acres in Towson; though it does not extend into the Towson Triangle, it does extend north of Fairmount Avenue. The additional area includes The Quarters at Towson Town Center, Dulaney Valley Apartments and the Goucher College property. In describing the new district, Marks said it has a "market-driven approach to parking requirements, and improves environmental, lighting, and connectivity standards." Proposed projects within the district's boundaries would also be subject to review by a panel made up of architects and other industry experts, and public input from citizens, according to Marks.

Critics of the new Downtown Towson overlay district have said they wanted to see more environmental protections and open space requirements on developments within it. Beth Miller, a member of the Green Towson Alliance, which advocates for open space and green building standards in the Towson area, was displeased that some of the environmental regulations in the zone are suggestions, not requirements.

"I think time will tell whether or not those things are actually going to be enforced," Miller said. "We would have liked to see it much more rigorous."

Gookin, who also represents Towsongate Condominiums on the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations, said he supports the extension of denser downtown zoning north of Fairmount Avenue and updating design standards.

"I think it will help the whole downtown concept," he said.

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