The Growth Goals of Baltimore County's Master Plan 2020 - Are PUDs the Answer?

Date: June 9, 2010

Baltimore County is once again in the throes of amending its Master Plan, as an update is mandated every ten years by the county's charter. The county's current Master Plan 2010 was adopted in February of 2000. The Office of Planning's goal for the adoption of Master Plan 2020 is October 1, 2010, with a draft expected to be released this month, Planning Board review this summer, and Council review this fall.

The role of the county's Master Plan is to guide the county's future development. More than in any prior plan, Master Plan 2020 will focus on sustainable development. The twelve visions of Master Plan 2020 clearly demonstrate this focus. Referring to sustainable development as "development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," the Office of Planning notes that contrary to the development patterns of the county since 1945, which include sprawling, low-density growth, the focus needs to be redevelopment opportunities that will permit a decrease in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).

Pointing to transportation corridors and areas already improved by or planned for public infrastructure as potential locations for redevelopment opportunities, the Office of Planning proposes the promotion of higher-density, mixed-use types of development. Not only can mixed-use developments drastically reduce VMT, but, citing an EPA Study of the correlation between density and stormwater runoff, the Office of Planning notes that an almost 74% decrease in runoff is potentially feasible if, instead of 10,000 houses located on 10,000 acres, 10,000 houses are concentrated on 1,250 acres. A key component proposed is high connectivity development - something that historically has been opposed by existing residents.

The State of Maryland anticipates a growth of nearly 1 million people over the next 20 years. Baltimore County projects a growth of only approximately 45,000 new residents in that same time frame. These projections seem to be inconsistent, and time will tell which one is correct. But in either scenario, clearly the intent is that new growth be managed in a more responsible and sustainable way than before. The Master Plan 2020 will call for the development of walkable communities - how will these be realized? Could the county's Planned Unit Development (PUD) process be the answer?

The PUD process is a tool which can be utilized to permit development which otherwise would be prohibited via the existing zoning regulations. In Baltimore County, there is no mixed-use zoning classification. Therefore, a PUD is the required process for a mixed-use development.

The PUD Process has gotten a bad rap in Baltimore County lately. Community groups have viewed the PUD as a vehicle by which developers got away with not having to meet the regulations. Political pressure to do something was strong - so much so that recently the Baltimore County Council amended the process so as to remove the Planning Board's role completely.

A reading of Bill 5-10, passed by the Council in February of this year, quickly reveals how the PUD law has been restricted, and how opportunities to utilize the PUD process have been eliminated. The first page of the bill removes both the senior housing PUD and the ability to locate PUDs in previously permitted zones.

Yet again, history repeats itself. In the 1970s, the Planning Board was authorized to approve PUDs. Similar to the political pressure placed on the Council as a result of various PUD projects, that process was amended in the 1970s to remove the Planning Board's role. Frankly, members of the current Planning Board are likely relieved, as were the members in 1970, to have this burden lifted.

Only time will tell if Baltimore County's Master Plan 2020 Visions and goal of mixed-use, walkable and sustainable development will be attained, but one thing is certain - growth is inevitable. The PUD is logically a viable method to assist in reaching the county's goals and it should not only be promoted but supported. In today's challenging economy, developers may finally be appreciated for what they are - job promoters. They can use all the incentives they can get.