On its face, Baltimore County Council Bill 33-24 is a reasonable measure. It proposes an amendment to the county charter requiring that all appointments to the county’s planning board, including those made by the county executive, be confirmed by a vote of the County Council before taking effect.

Eight members of the board are appointed by the county executive, and each of the seven members of the County Council appoints a member. Currently, only the appointments of the chair and vice-chair by the county executive require confirmation. The board exercises important powers, and council oversight of the appointment process is appropriate. So far, so good.

The problem lies in the motivation for introducing the bill and what that motivation portends for the future. The motivation reflects and reinforces attitudes that made Baltimore County the most segregated major jurisdiction in Maryland and the target of a federal housing discrimination lawsuit settled in 2016. Those attitudes are far more consequential than the bill itself.

Republican Baltimore County Councilman David Marks is the primary sponsor of Bill 33-24. He said he introduced it because the planning board is “aggressively pro-development.” He described some members of the board as “disconnected from public sentiment” in a letter to the Baltimore Sun.

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His description of an unhealthy bias of the board toward the interests of builders and developers at the expense of ordinary residents has been true for decades. It corresponds with the favored treatment historically given to those special interests by the entire executive branch of county government as well as by members of the council, including Marks.

Marks has been on the council since 2010. Did something happen that caused him to conclude after 14 years in office that the pro-development stance of the board is a problem requiring a charter amendment? It is worth noting that a considerable amount of ill-conceived development was approved in the past 14 years.

I believe Marks was persuaded to act by the firestorm ignited in some parts of the county in January when County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. announced legislation that would allow mixed-used developments in areas targeted for redevelopment without requiring approval by the council on a project-by-project basis. The building of more apartments, especially those including affordable-dwelling units, raised fears of what Councilman Wade Kach referred to as the “urbanization” of substantial portions of the county.

In my opinion, the epiphany experienced by Marks and other members of the council came in the form of emails and other feedback from constituents demanding that they reject Olszewski’s proposal. I got a sampling of that feedback after I wrote an op-ed urging Olszewski to support conversion of the mostly vacant Lutherville Station shopping center into a transit-oriented development with a mix of uses including 400 apartments.

The feedback included legitimate concerns about the county’s poor track record in making sure that public facilities, including schools, are adequate to serve new development. But a lot of it was blatant not-in-my-backyard reaction and some was overtly racist, specifically referring to the likelihood that more apartments would attract “trash” from the city into the county.

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Bill 33-24 is a signal to constituents that council members stand ready to block the appointment of planning board members who support “urbanization.” It panders to the same prejudices encountered by Olszewski’s proposal.

Olszewski withdrew his mixed-use development bill, Bill 3-24, in favor of a weak compromise that retains the power of individual council members to veto development projects in their districts through the practice of “councilmanic courtesy.” The practice effectively divides the county into seven separate fiefdoms for purposes of land use planning and development approval.

It makes worthwhile countywide master planning impossible and has been criticized by organizations such as NeighborSpace and We the People of Baltimore County and by the editorial board of The Baltimore Sun. Nevertheless, the council clings to the practice of councilmanic courtesy.

In February, Marks and the two other Republican council members who represent eastern and northern Baltimore County, Kach and Todd Crandell, sent a joint letter to constituents assuring them that they would fight to retain their personal control over development in their districts. They explain how they decide whether to introduce legislation to allow a project to move forward.

The problem is that their decisions are subjective. The letter states that the few projects they have approved represent “real neighborhood partnerships.” A “real neighborhood partnership” means whatever the council member in whose district the proposed project is located says it means.

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Council members are legislators, not administrators. Through the unwritten doctrine of councilmanic courtesy, they have arrogated to individual members a role in approving development of dubious legality, making decisions ostensibly unconstrained by the standards that govern such decisions when made by administrative officials.

It is a role vulnerable to influence-peddling and corruption. As the letter indicates, it can be used to stop a project that a council member decides that his or her constituents simply don’t want.

If Bill 33-24 is passed and results in more balanced attitudes toward growth and development among members of the planning board, that’s good. Far more important, however, is an adjustment in the attitudes among council members that motivated the introduction of the bill.

The challenges faced by the county include a stagnating economy, a shrinking population and an affordable-housing crisis. Those challenges cannot be met if planning continues to be done as if the county is subdivided into seven unrelated districts. With two-thirds of the county already off limits to intensive development because of the Urban Rural Demarcation Line, it must make better use of the dwindling supply of raw land available for development as well as the county’s many underutilized commercial and industrial parcels.

That means encouraging transit-oriented and other mixed-use development that includes affordable rental housing. It also means that a single member of the council cannot be allowed to block a project solely because his or her constituents fear the “urbanization” of the county. That will require not only a significant change in the attitudes of council members but also a fair amount of political courage.

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David Plymyer retired as the county attorney for Anne Arundel County in 2014 and now writes about the law and local and state government. He lives in Catonsville.

The Baltimore Banner welcomes opinion pieces and letters to the editor. Please send submissions to communityvoices@thebaltimorebanner.com or letters@thebaltimorebanner.com.

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