Baltimore County Master Plan 2020 and Comprehensive Zoning

Date: December 14, 2010

Last month, the Baltimore County Council adopted a new Master Plan to guide the growth and development of the county and the provision of county services for the next decade. State law (Article 66B of the Annotated Code of Maryland) requires local jurisdictions to review, and if necessary, amend or revise master plans and describes twelve "visions" which local jurisdictions are required to implement through the adopted master plan. In addition to addressing the twelve visions, the Baltimore County Master Plan 2020 articulates three goals: Continue the Success of Growth Management, Improve the Built Environment; and Strengthen Resource Conservation and Protection.

The Baltimore County Charter requires that a Master Plan be adopted at least every ten years and a zoning map be prepared at least every six years. State law now requires that such map be "consistent" with the master plan. In Baltimore County the map process actually occurs every four years in order for each elected county council to vote on the zoning map. This process will start in the fall of 2011 and will end in late summer of 2012, with the adoption of a new zoning map.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the impact of the Court of Appeals' opinion in Trail v. Terrapin Run, LLC, 403 Md. 523, 943 A.2d 1192 (2008), and of the subsequent overturning of that opinion by the adoption by the Maryland General Assembly of Chapters 180 and 181 of the Acts of 2009, addressing master plans and zoning and development ordinances. A new Section 1.02 of Article 66B was adopted requiring "consistency" with a master plan when reviewing a special exception, or adopting zoning and development ordinances and regulations. "Consistency" includes development patterns, land uses, and densities or intensities. For example, new, high intensity industrial development requiring the extension of public water and sewer outside the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL) in the rural area of Baltimore County could be deemed "inconsistent" with the master plan. Typically, when such zoning has occurred in the past, the URDL and the master water and sewer plan have to be amended in order for development under that zoning to occur.

Since 1978, the Baltimore County Charter has required that comprehensive zoning maps be consistent with the adopted master plan. The state regulations, therefore, are nothing new to Baltimore County. Moreover, the County Code Section 32-2-202, the resolution language adopting the plan, and the adopted plan itself, have all stated that the master plan is a "guide" to the development of the county. This use of the master plan as a guide to specific zoning has been repeatedly articulated in previously adopted plans and in numerous court decisions reviewing zoning maps. Little change, therefore, is anticipated in the relationship between zoning and planning from previous zoning maps.

What is very different in Master Plan 2020 is the proposal for transect-based planning to guide development. If adopted, this could dramatically change the zoning categories in Baltimore County and the way in which development occurs.

The 2011-2012 comprehensive zoning map process promises to be very interesting. The seven-member Baltimore County Council which adopts the zoning maps has five new members, none of whom have ever served as elected officials. Redistricting will occur prior to the zoning map adoption, so that the normal practice of individual council members reviewing zoning issues in their district will be stretched a bit because the districts in which they will be reviewing zoning issues may not match up to the districts in which they may be running for election in 2014. Finally, this master plan contains a very different approach to zoning and land use regulation from any previous plan, and whether legislation will be adopted pursuant to it, prior to, or during the zoning map process bears close attention.

We recommend that people with property interests begin to examine their options now. This zoning map process provides unique opportunities as well as challenges for job creation and responsible development. Waiting until the process formally begins in September 2011 may be too late to establish the necessary discussions among members of the council, county staff, and community and business groups. Once begun, the process moves quickly. The processing of zoning map issues is all about building relationships and working through issues as partners with various individuals and groups. Building those relationships and working through issues takes time, and waiting until the last minute may be too late.