We The People - Baltimore County
Planning for Master Plan 2030:
How Baltimore County Can Create an "Equitable Growth" Action Plan
We The People is a community organization 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 Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, who serves on the board of the Southwest Visions Foundation, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to community revitalization in Southwest Baltimore County, including through implementation of the State's Sustainable Communities Program.
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.
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 in 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
It is projected that the county will register 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).
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.
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 development left in the URDL is harder and more expensive to do.
4. Mixed-Use Development
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.
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.
6. Simpler, Better Zoning Laws, Regulations and Processes
Wholesale review of zoning laws, regulations and processes to simplify them where possible.
Reform or replace the “planned unit development” or “PUD” process, which is the primary tool to develop mixed-use projects (including limits on density increases).
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).
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.
For more information on each of these points, please see our more detailed white paper: link.
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.
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.
Who is on board?
NeighborSpace of Baltimore County
NeighborSpace is a non-profit that works within Baltimore County's densely populated and poorly planned inner suburbs to protect and improve scarce land for parks, gardens, trails and natural areas. In so doing, NeighborSpace seeks to promote the health and well being of the 732,000 people who live inside one of the country's oldest growth boundaries, the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL), on just 1/3 of the County's total land area. NeighborSpace also seeks to lessen the flow of untreated stormwater into rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay and to enhance the value of homes in older neighborhoods.
Click here to read NeighborSpace's take on We The People's ideas.
Essex Middle River Civic Council
The Essex Middle River Civic Council is an umbrella group of community associations, and has been in existence for over fifty years. The Council focuses on issues of area-wide and multi-community significance. The Council has become a well respected organization and has been a strong voice for communities, representing them before local, state and federal decision-makers.
Perry Hall Improvement Association
The PHIA has been in existence nearly 75 years and is one of the oldest and largest civic organization in northeast Baltimore County. Since Perry Hall is not incorporated, the PHIA is the dominant community-wide coalition in the area. The PHIA is actively engaged in advocacy, events and service projects on a regular basis.
Lansdowne Improvement Association
The Lansdowne Improvement Association is a community organization dedicated to making Lansdowne, Maryland a great place to live, work, and play.
Our White Paper
We The People has prepared a fulsome white paper further discussing the history of development in Baltimore County, the nature and extent of our challenges, our goal as an organization and our detailed proposed solutions. You may review the white paper here: link.
You may also download a copy of our truncated work here (link); it is a two-page summary.
To review our recent letter to the Planning Board regarding its consideration of the master plan draft, see this link.