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Baltimore County Council wants final say on who sits on the Planning Board

The Baltimore County Council. Photo by John Lee/WYPR.
John Lee
The Baltimore County Council.

The Baltimore County Council is moving to wrest control of the planning board away from the county executive.

Currently, eight of the board’s 15 members are appointed by the county executive with the County Council having no say in the matter. Council members are proposing that they be given the authority to approve or reject the executive’s picks.

Republican Councilman David Marks, who is sponsoring the legislation, said the planning board is “aggressively pro-development.”

Marks said, “Even if that was not the case, I think it’s a general principle of checks and balances that the County Council should have some role in confirming the nominations to this body.”

Marks added, “If the County Council is going to approve members of the Animal Hearing Board and other more obscure bodies, then why aren’t we at least reviewing the names that are being put forward for the planning board?”

The remaining seven seats on the planning board are filled by the County Council. Each of the seven council members gets a planning board pick. The proposed legislation also would require that those appointments be confirmed by the full County Council.

“There is an attitude among some on the planning board that the County Council doesn’t matter,” Marks said. “We do matter and I think members of the future planning board should be confirmed by the council.”

Baltimore County Planning Board Chair Nancy Hafford said she first heard about the proposal from a reporter.

“I don’t understand the need to change it because nobody has told me there’s a problem with it,” Hafford said.

Planning board members serve three year terms. Last year the county began paying them an annual salary of $15,000. The chair receives $20,000. Hafford said many of the board members have been serving since before they began receiving compensation.

“They’re not there for money,” Hafford said. “They’re there because they care about their community and what happens in their community.”

The proposal requires a change to the county charter, which needs to be decided by county voters. The proposed legislation has enough support on the County Council to put the question on the November ballot.

Democratic Councilman Mike Ertel, who supports the proposed charter amendment, said the County Council needs to protect the URDL, the Urban Rural Demarcation Line, that protects rural Northern Baltimore County from development. Ertel said a future planning board packed with members open to rolling back the URDL would be problematic.

“More oversight is never a bad thing,” Ertel said.

Hafford said she doesn’t see the URDL being changed “anytime in the near future.”

“There’s land to be redeveloped inside the URDL," Hafford said.

Ertel said the county needs to get creative to deal with the reality that its infrastructure in the developable part of the county is aging.

“I think it’s more important than ever that we get good people who are helping us,” Ertel said.

The planning board plays a critical role in developing the county’s 10 year master plan which was approved by the council in February. It currently is in the process of working through the quadrennial Comprehensive Zoning Map Process, in which any property in the county can be rezoned.

Council Chairman Izzy Patoka, a Democrat, supports the proposed charter change and points to the fact that County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s administration was nearly four years late getting the master plan to the County Council.

Patoka said, “The planning board should have pressed the planning director to say ‘hey, our master plan, what we’re responsible for as planning board members is four years late. That’s unacceptable.’”

To make his case that the planning board is overly supportive of development, Councilman Marks points to its support in 2022 to extend public water to the old C.P. Crane power plant site in Bowleys Quarters so it could be developed.

This was before it was announced in March that much of the site would be preserved for parkland.

“That was a big one,” Marks said.

Hafford said planning board members understand the need to preserve land and not let new development overcrowd schools.

She added, “They also believe that middle income families have a right to be homeowners.”

“We are an advisory board,” Hafford said. “We’re not decision makers. We advise the council what we think. They can overturn whatever recommendations we make.”

Olszewski has no say as to whether the proposal will be on the November ballot. Erica Palmisano, Olszewski’s press secretary said in a statement, “We’re monitoring the bill as it goes through the legislative process.”

The County Council will consider the proposed charter change at its April 30 and May 14 meetings. A final vote is expected May 23.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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