Questions remain as zoning overhaul moves on to City Council
Council Bill 12-0152, the first comprehensive zoning rewrite in Baltimore in 41 years, passed to City Council last Thursday amid controversy–most notably over the phase out of liquor stores and questions of enforcement and clarity.
At the beginning of the hearing, Bill Cunningham, chief of the Planning Commission, stressed to the attendees that the legislation was still in its developmental stages.
“I want everyone to know that this is just our recommendation. The City Council, in its infinite wisdom, can change things. This is not the last stop,” Cunningham said.
One member of the Planning Commission voted against the liquor store phase out because he wasn’t sure it would hold up in court. Robert Hopkins, one of two citizen representatives on the Planning Commission and an attorney, was the only planning commissioner to vote against the phase-out.
“This is probably going to get overturned at the circuit court or the appellate level,” said Hopkins, who believes the commission did not take into consideration the financial loss the store owners would suffer.
Those store owners looking for a way out may run into trouble. The Baltimore City Liquor Board says that some of the 100 non-conforming liquor stores in residential neighborhoods recommended for phase-out may have a hard time selling and transferring their licenses.
“Some liquor store owners will be able to do that, but for others it could be difficult,” said Samuel Daniels, executive secretary of the Baltimore City Liquor Board.”
Daniels said that conceivably there are places for liquor stores to relocate to, but “I just don’t think it would be allowed. Zoning is already complaining about alcohol density.”
Another reason transferring could be difficult is because liquor licenses have to stay in the legislative district where they are held, said Steve Fogleman, Chairman of the Liquor Board.
“For years, there was the ability to [move], but you can’t move it across [district] lines anymore.”
There are also concerns about ReWrite Baltimore and enforcement, particularly with regard to a proposed change which would require taverns to show that more than 50 percent of their alcohol sales are for on-site consumption.
Fogleman said that the zoning rewrite is “not the Liquor Board’s province.” “We’re assuming that zoning will be doing the enforcement. Unless there’s a change in state law, it won’t be the Liquor Board.”
Community activists like Joan Floyd, have their own questions over the rewrite.
“This is a process that no one in the city has gone through before. It’s a new code and a new map simultaneously. It’s one thing to have a set code and then a new map, but we have a lot of moving parts and not one frame of reference. It’s quite big, quite difficult and quite questionable,” said Floyd, a Baltimore homeowner and activist who performs consulting and research for attorneys who specialize in zoning.
She is particularly concerned with the new zoning designation Neighborhood Commercial, under which owners of certain buildings may request a conditional use that would allow certain commercial uses in residential districts. Neighborhood Commercial is intended for buildings that were “not specifically built for residential use”—old warehouses, churches, storefronts, schools—but are in residential districts.
“Right now, there’s a lot of ambiguity. It’s not at all clear to the average row house owner exactly what it will mean. If you think a block is residential, you have expectations that it will stay that way,” Floyd explained.
Floyd says rewriting zoning after 41 years is “a gargantuan task.”
“We should go slowly and be meticulous and make sure what we come out with is truly enforceable, truly clear, and does truly preserve neighborhood character,” she said.
“I hope the City Council has legal counsel, independent of the administration, to help give them straight answers. You have to make sure you understand the rewrite at its enactment, because once a code is in place, it allows what it allows.”
by Danielle Sweeney