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A Primer On Zoning Laws

Larry Tom
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February 10, 2016

Managing the use and development of land is one of the most basic and important responsibilities of county government. Managing development is also one of the most challenging responsibilities of county government, particularly when we are confronted by problematic development projects that cause concern among surrounding communities.

The county has three primary tools at its disposal to manage and control land development. The first is zoning. In order to govern the growth and development in the county, the General Development Plan (GDP) designates every parcel of land in the county with a specific land use category, including rural, residential, commercial or industrial. Based on these land use designations, the zoning code serves as the primary regulatory tool in determining what types of development can go where in the county.

The county's second tool for managing land use is the adequate public facilities, or APF laws. These laws are designed to block development of a particular project if it threatens to overburden the schools, roads or public utilities, such as water and sewer.

The third tool is design development standards. These rigorous design requirements include such things as setbacks from waterways, maintenance of forested buffers, avoidance of steep slopes, and other measures.

One project currently under review by the county Office of Planning and Zoning that has caught the attention of community and environmental groups is Cattail Commons. Cattail Commons is a newly proposed, high-end townhome project consisting of 31 units that will be located adjacent to Cattail Creek. The development is located on a small, 11.38-acre undeveloped parcel behind the Food Lion off Ritchie Highway in Severna Park.

Many Severna Park residents are understandably concerned that this project threatens an environmentally sensitive ecosystem, will overburden Severna Park High School and will put additional pressure on already crowded roads. Based on these concerns, the administration has looked intensely at the Cattail Commons project. Based on current law, it appears that the developer has a legal right to proceed with this project. The parcel is zoned residential and is part of the area of the county designated for development in the GDP. The project does not run afoul of any of the APF laws. The developer has worked diligently to meet all of the necessary design criteria to minimize impact on the environment and to maintain appropriate setbacks.

Another project that has raised concerns among community groups is the Sabrina Chase, Phase 3 development. This is a single-family residence development in the Chartridge area of Severna Park that involves the clustering of 31 new homes into a small, narrow, 7.89-acre parcel. This project appears to meet all legal standards because of an unfortunate loophole in the design development laws that were intended to encourage “cluster development,” which simply means concentrating construction in compact areas within a parcel and thereby leaving as much green space and natural features as possible.

As the law is now written, the developer of Sabrina Park, Phase 3, is able to use the cluster development provisions of the code to overburden this small parcel with too many homes. As in the case of Cattail Commons, the county has no legal basis for stopping the project.

Based on our experiences with Cattail Commons and Sabrina Park, Phase 3, the county administration is undertaking three initiatives to avoid such unfortunate situations in the future. First, the administration has convened a workgroup to conduct a complete review of our APF laws to make sure that they function in a manner consistent with their intended purpose. Secondly, the administration will submit legislation to the county council to reform the cluster development law so that the current loophole is closed, thereby enabling that law to meet its intended purpose. Thirdly, the administration has convened a workgroup to research how habitat protection areas can be expanded throughout the county and not just in the critical area.

We are sincerely appreciative of all the citizen input into our evaluation of these projects. Our experiences with these difficult situations have given us a roadmap to improve our overall regulatory and legal structure as it relates to land use.

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