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We The People - Baltimore County

Planning for Master Plan 2030: 

How Baltimore County Can Create an "Equitable Growth" Action Plan

Our Movement

We The People is a community group founded by Pat Keller and Nick Stewart in 2021.  Pat was the planning director for Baltimore County for more than 22 years, while Nick is a partner at Duane Morris LLP, who serves on the board of the Southwest Visions Foundation, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to community revitalization in Southwest Baltimore County.

We are fortunate to be joined in this effort by a talented management team, which includes the following leaders:

  • John Alexander (Planner in Baltimore County PAI & Planning Department for 26 years)

  • Bob Bendler (President of Essex-Middle River Civic Council)

  • Marsha McLaughlin (Howard County Planning Director/Deputy Director for 25 years) 

  • Klaus Philipsen (President of ArchPlan, Inc.; Fellow of the American Institute of Architects)

Image by Hannah Busing

Our Goal

Use the Master Plan 2030 process to create an actionable “equitable growth” strategy that helps address our shared challenges, by building consensus on future development and preventing highly charged project-level conflicts down the road. 


In view of the Master Plan 2030 process and the pandemic recovery, now is the time for all stakeholders (residents, advocates and developers) to discuss how to reinvest with this goal in mind:  create a predictable and transparent development process so that the county can reinvent the suburbs and create attractive, livable and sustainable complete communities with decent, affordable housing options for all.


This is the foundation of an "equitable growth" strategy.  With such a development process in place, the county will be better positioned to guide growth and thereby expand opportunities. 


This is critical if the county is to improve the green network and the quality of the outdoors, improve housing options for all, improve public education and overcrowding, improve connectivity and transit choices, improve competitiveness and the ability to attract and retain jobs, improve access to amenities, and (perhaps most importantly) improve equity. 

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The Story of Growth in Baltimore County

In 1967, the county adopted the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (“URDL”), which identified the area of the county that could be serviced by city water and sewer.  This area is one third of the county, and today 90% of residents live within the URDL.


While the URDL was an early form of smart growth, it was not enough to push all development into one area and step away.  For growth to benefit all, it needs to be well-planned and consistent with a holistic vision of growth that is produced by a vigorous, collaborative and extensive planning process.  That is the very reason why we have a master plan.


Granted, the county did try a “town center” approach, which was supposed to create attractive, mixed-use communities with a suite of amenities.  However, the centers became low-density sprawl with little sense of place or connectivity, and with little ability to anchor future growth.


What made this possible?  The ultimate decision-maker on zoning decisions is the county council, and the county council regularly makes these decisions in a way that is (a) on-demand, ad-hoc and project-by-project, (b) often political and emotional and (c) not inclusive of residents.  While this is contrary to master plans, the law has allowed it.  This has to stop.


For some time, the effects of this ad-hoc decision-making were not widely felt.  Perhaps the primary reason for this was because the county still had greenfields within the URDL (which are less expensive and time-consuming to develop).  So, the county felt comfortable building farther out from the city, instead of forcing growth into town centers and reinvesting in older communities. 


This, in turn, accelerated the disinvestment of those older communities known as “first-tier suburbs,” which are the suburbs immediately surrounding the city built after World War II, such as Lansdowne, Woodlawn, Middle River, Essex and Dundalk.  On average, these suburbs contain much smaller homes, and lack access to basic amenities. 


The county has continued this ad-hoc approach to development to this day (e.g., Ownings Mill, where three mixed-use developments are in close proximity and compete with one another to some degree).  However, the problem now is that the county has run out of greenspace and is left with infill development and redevelopment, which is harder and more expensive to do.

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Our Challenges

We are at a breaking point.  The effects of ad-hoc decision-making have been far reaching.

Lack of Open Space

65% of residences lack access to adequate open space within a quarter mile, or walking distance, of their homes. Further, according to walkscore.com, none of the county’s 16 inner suburbs are considered walkable and only 4 of the 16 are considered “somewhat walkable.”

Pollution

All but one of the 14 county watersheds are polluted by nitrogen, phosphorous and/or sediment, and are considered “impaired” by the state. This means that the water’s quality is too low to support its intended use. Current practices are not keeping pace with population and development.

Housing Shortage

There is a critical shortage of housing in the county, including housing that is affordable to working families.

Existing Housing Is Old

The median age of county housing is 48 years, compared to 39 years nationally.  Almost half of homes were built prior to 1970.

Declining Suburbs

Overlooked older suburbs (built after World War II) have continued to decline, reducing our viable housing stock.

Increased Housing Costs

As supply dwindled, housing costs increased, reaching a decade high for the Baltimore region in March 2021.

More Alice Households

ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) measures the true amount of poverty in an area.  ALICE households in Maryland increased by 57% from 2007 to 2018 as a direct result of housing costs.

History of Discrimination

The county entered into a 2016 HUD settlement agreement to address its long history of discrimination in housing against African Americans and people with disabilities.  The county is not on pace to meet its obligations to build affordable homes under this agreement.

Population Loss

The county registered a population loss for the first time since the 1920 census.

Outdated and Bad Laws and Regulations

Outdated, bad laws and regulations: Existing laws and regulations are out of date, and provide ways to circumvent master planning and development review.

For more information on each of these challenges, please see our more detailed white paper:  link.

Our Seven Point Plan

1.  Master Plan as a Controlling Document, with Proper Sequencing of Land Use Tools

The county should transform the Master Plan from an aspirational document that can be ignored by decision-makers (councilmembers) into a controlling document that governs future map amendments. This includes changing the sequencing of the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (“CZMP”) so that it occurs shortly after the Master Plan is adopted at Year 0 and after it is updated at Year 5 (the amending process does not exist now).

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2.  Close the “Priority Funding Area” Loophole

State law says that local land use decisions must be consistent with master plans, except if they are being made in “Priority Funding Areas.”  This is a major loophole, because almost all of the land within the URDL has been designated as a “Priority Funding Area.”  But for this loophole, the master plan would, in fact, be controlling.  We need the help of our state legislators to solve this issue. 


Update:  Senator Charles Sydnor introduced a bill to close this loophole during the 2023 session, but it was rejected by the lobbying arm of local governments on the basis that it limited local discretion - bill is here.

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3.  By-Right Development

If the Master Plan process was truly collaborative and extensive, and the Master Plan was legally binding, it makes sense to expand the use of “by-right” development. This means fewer projects would be subject to special discretionary review, which would reduce costs for homebuyers and others. This is critical because the only real development left in the URDL is harder and more expensive to do.

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4.  Mixed-Use Development; PUD Reform

With its abundance of underinvested first-tier suburbs – which do not have the amenities of complete communities and are unconnected to one another – Baltimore County is poised to reap significant benefits from well-planned, mixed-used developments.  The county must make it easier to develop high-quality projects. 


This requires reforming the primary way by which the county promotes mixed use and that is the "Planned Unit Development" or "PUD" process, which is currently abused and ineffective.  We must also expand the use of zoning overlays (including overlays for "mixed use" and "transit-oriented development"). 

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5.  Green Network

The county should establish a Green Network so that it can improve the connectivity among green hubs, and thereby make the most of the open space, parks, trails and greenways that currently exist.

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6.  Simpler, Better Zoning Laws, Regulations and Processes

  • Wholesale review of zoning laws, regulations and processes to simplify them where possible.

  • Require zoning bills to have a 90-day period of review and comment by the Planning Department and the Planning Board, after which the council may proceed with a vote.

  • Require zoning amendments to have a 30-day review period (council cannot propose such amendments and vote on them at the same meeting).

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7.  Updated Community Plans

The county should allocate resources as necessary to help communities update their local development plans, which should flow up into the councilmanic plans, which should flow up into the Master Plan.  These local plans have legal significance and are referenced by the zoning law, yet some plans are decades old.  See, e.g., Hereford Community Plan, dated as of May 6, 1991.

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For more information on each of these points, please see our more detailed white paper:  link

Get Involved

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Organize an Event

Right now, Baltimore County is undergoing its master planning process, and we are working hard to get the word out as to this incredible opportunity to promote an enduring, and more equitable, growth strategy.  And we can use your help - please consider helping us organize an event or webinar to discuss with your community group or local organization.  If you are interested in this, please click the button below to contact us.

Contact Your Councilmember

We acknowledge that certain of our proposed solutions may require legislative action, which is why it is so important that our councilmembers in Baltimore County hear from you, and your desire for an equitable growth strategy to the county's future.  Please click below to find your councilmember and his or her contact information.

Donate

As a grass roots campaign, we are fueled by people power and our own investments of time and money.  However, if you share our vision for a more equitable future, we would ask that you consider donating to the cause, by clicking below.  The truth is our success depends on our ability to reach our neighbors in Baltimore County, and your contribution, no matter what size, would help us in these outreach efforts.

We The People in the Press

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Baltimore County Council to discuss mixed-use legislation.

February 5, 2024

OPINION: Can Johnny O. bring Baltimore County’s development laws into the 21st century?

January 31, 2024

Law Firm
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Baltimore County executive to introduce legislation bypassing council approval for mixed-use developments

January 12, 2024

Master Plan falls short on climate change, Baltimore County Council told

 

January 9, 2024

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Baltimore County Council to take action on overdue master plan

January 1, 2024

Baltimore County Council delays vote on 2030 Master Plan due to lack of print copies, ‘usability’ issues

October 9, 2023

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Delayed Baltimore County 2030 Master Plan nears completion; public comment open until Wednesday

May 16, 2023

Opinion: Time to overhaul Baltimore County’s planning, development review and zoning process

August 12, 2022

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