By this coming spring, the city will likely have completely different zoning laws.
Through several public hearings to be held by the Baltimore City Planning Commission, residents have several opportunities to comment on the city’s plans to completely overhaul the zoning code.
The first of these hearings was on Thursday, Nov. 29, at the War Memorial Building.
The Planning Commission, chaired by Wilbur Cunningham, a mayoral appointee, is made up of five other members appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a representative from the Mayor’s Office, Councilwoman Rochelle Spector, and a representative from the Department of Public Works.
Cunningham said that the Planning Department has been working on the new code for four years. The city’s zoning code was last overhauled 41 years ago, in 1971.
One change, according to Feinberg, is a general shift away from the “auto-oriented development” of the 1970s to encouraging “walkable, livable neighborhoods that promote transit use.”
Non-conforming liquor stores
Major changes include an end to the grandfathering of liquor stores in residential zones. If the proposed zoning code is passed, non-conforming liquor stores will have two years to stop selling liquor, wine, and beer.
“The businesses can stay there; they can sell other things,” said Laurie Feinberg, the city’s Division Chief for Comprehensive Planning, at the Nov. 29 hearing.
During the zoning rewrite, the Health Department pushed for that measure. In a prepared statement on Nov. 29, the department’s director, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, argued that “places where you can buy cheap liquor across a plexiglass window” are detrimental to public health and well-being.
“The presence of package goods stores in cities is a predictor of violent crimes,” she said.
Her statement drew a mixed reaction from the audience. There was some immediate applause, but several liquor store owners later spoke against the measure.
Under the new zoning, taverns would also have to conform to the official definition of a “tavern,” meaning that 50 percent of the establishment’s area and sales income must come from on-premises consumption.
For businesses and homeowners who wish to do something not expressly allowed by zoning, the new zoning bill has provisions for both major and minor variances. The minor variance provision is new—a sign detailing the variance is posted on the property, and if there are no objections, the process may continue without a public hearing.
Feinberg said that “if a homeowner wants to make an addition that goes one foot into the required yard,” for example, then pursuing a minor variance is much cheaper than pursuing a major variance.
The zoning bill takes a “generic use approach,” Feinberg said. An industrial mixed use allows industrial buildings to also be used for “live-work artisans—that sort of thing.” In the past, an industrial building could only be used for industrial purposes.
Transit-oriented development would be a special zone near public transit station, with decreased automobile usage.
“This is a recognition that we want to increase the use of transit throughout the city,” Feinberg said.
The next public hearing on the proposed new zoning code is Dec. 13, 6 p.m., at the Baltimore City Community College Liberty Campus, 3100 Towanda Ave., at the West Pavilion Auditorium in the West Pavilion. On Jan. 5, there is a hearing at 11 a.m. at Poly/Western High School, and on Jan. 24, the public may comment and seek information at the Southeast Regional Library, 5 p.m.
A separate hearing is planned for the liquor store issue, time and place to be determined.
The Planning Commission is scheduled to make a final recommendation on the proposed zoning overhaul on March 7. It will be heard in City Council on April 3 at 5 p.m., City Hall.
by Erik Zygmont