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Op-ed: Future of Towson at risk with proposed zoning changes

York Road businesses in the Towson Triangle

Zoning is not a sexy subject, yet its implications can be immense. Towson is on the verge of making zoning changes that will have major long-term consequences and shape the future of the area.

If the changes are not handled correctly now, it could hurt Towson for decades to come.

Zoning classifications in Towson can be complicated because of our urban-suburban nature. From the standpoint of the residential community, the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations would like to see zoning decisions that do the following:

  • Maintain the integrity and long-term viability of our Towson neighborhoods
  • Bring good projects that attract new middle-income taxpayers to Towson
  • Promote walkability, street level activity and vibrancy
  • Provide green-space amenities
  • Minimize impacts to failing infrastructure
  • Protect adjacent neighborhoods from negative impacts of development

Granting BM-CT zoning virtually guarantees that projects will be massive with little to no public input or even scrutiny from our councilman.

Every four years, Baltimore County participates in the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP). Under CZMP, property owners and citizens can request any property in the county be considered for rezoning. A property could be up-zoned, allowing for a more intense use (taller,  more dense, more commercial, etc.). Properties can also be down-zoned, which could permit less development (fewer houses per acre, more green space, no commercial use). Our councilman, David Marks, has the ultimate authority to grant the request, modify or deny it.


The Towson Triangle

York biz

In Towson, there are always numerous requests to up-zone properties for more intense use. Towson has been identified as a growth area, and developers are looking to go big, tall, and dense.

Developers are looking to go big, tall, and dense.

Most developers insist that they can’t be profitable unless they can build to the highest degree possible. Often developers buy a property knowing the development they want is not allowed under current zoning. But they will request up-zoning at CZMP or asking for a PUD (Planned Unit Development, which is another avenue to circumvent existing zoning).

For the 2016 CZMP, there are three requests that ask for the highest possible zoning (BM-CT) – two in the Towson Triangle (where the American Legion is located) and one on Goucher College’s property.

York Road businesses in the Towson Triangle

York Road businesses in the Towson Triangle

BM-CT is synonymous with multi-story buildings. We are opposed to the three requests as we believe these are blank checks to the owners who are looking to sell their property to developers. Granting BM-CT zoning virtually guarantees that projects will be massive with little to no public input or even scrutiny from our councilman. 

American LegionThe two properties in the Triangle sit feet away from the failing intersection at York Road and Burke Avenue (an intersection that is rated F in terms of how long it takes cars to get through it), yet the county is mysteriously exempting it from regulations that were passed to address this specific issue.

Rendering of type of development GTCCA would like to see at Towson Triangle

Rendering of type of development GTCCA would like to see at Towson Triangle

The Adequate Facilities regulations were passed in 1979 to limit development in areas that didn’t have traffic, sewer, or school capacity. Even though development in the Triangle will dramatically affect traffic at York and Burke, the county exempts any development from being scrutinized under the regulation. 

For the long term viability of Towson, it would be best for David Marks to deny these requests until there is a collective vision for development in these areas.

Unfortunately, there is no strong authority in Baltimore County that plans and coordinates large projects. We have a Design Review Panel that makes advisory (but not binding) recommendations. If the developers wants to follow the advice they can, but it’s not required.

On the zoning front, David Marks and the community are asked to agree to the up-zoning with no plans or specifics: “Just trust us.” If neighborhood groups question or oppose an up zone, we are once again labelled as anti-development and against economic growth.

Southerly at Dulaney Valley Road at Goucher

Southerly at Dulaney Valley Road at Goucher

In most cases, I’ve found Towsonites to be fairly supportive of good development. GTCCA and its member neighborhoods have championed developments like Towson Green, The Promenade Apartments, and the Fidelity building at the Towson Circle. Most residents want to see a vibrant, mixed use, low-rise (six stories or less) streetscape along York Road in downtown Towson.

Southerly at Dulaney Valley Road at Goucher

Southerly at Dulaney Valley Road at Goucher

GoucherWe are at a crossroads in Towson where a few large projects can drastically change Towson. If the projects are done poorly, there is no going back. For the long term viability of Towson, it would be best for David Marks to deny these requests until there is a collective vision for development in these areas.

Mike Ertel

Mike Ertel

Mike Ertel
Greater Towson Council of Community Associations (GTCCA)


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7 Comments on "Op-ed: Future of Towson at risk with proposed zoning changes"

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Laurence Fogelson

One of the best statements and summaries of this issue I have seen to date. I can’t believe the Towson Times isn’t all over this – are they sleeping? or part of the problem? The indifference, or even hostility, of the current county administration toward anything resembling real planning, and great architecture and urban design is disturbing. There has not been a revision or update of a Towson Plan since 1994 or updated modern urban design principals for many years. Advocacy organizations such as the Green Towson Alliance and Nieghborspace are ending up trying to do planning and design work that nearly every other county and municipal planning department in Maryland does routinely. Councilman Marks is trying to fill this gap, but it is an uphill battle. It is astonishing that a modern urban county is so backwards in this respect. The development horses are running out of the barn as I write and Towson will continue to be doomed to unfriendly, tree poor, car choked streets, under capacity road, sewer, and open space infrastructure, and mundane (or worse) architecture and design. Many people I talk to now don’t want to go there now. How is this adminstration’s laissez faire approach good for Towson businesses – other than developers – in the short or long run?

Tony Solesky

An excellent piece , with nothing new, but the same old accurate and intelligent commentary.
At what point does one stop questioning , with concerns that they have not explained their point -just so to their representative and start to address the reality of how zoning works??. There are few to , no existing zoning regulation/laws that serve as a happily ever after fortress to preserve one way of life against another, It is not a good citizen, underhanded evil developer circumstance Developers are merely educated ,and positioned financially and legally in a more formidable way. Not much different in scale for business people than someone erecting a fence or a deck in their own neighborhood. Until residence swat back with an equally formidable and organized position, it is pretty much like negotiating for a raise in a company that is planing on laying everyone off.

Mike Batley

Thanks Mike! I wrote Councilman Marks and encouraged him to read this and shared my agreement with your recommendations. Thanks for representing us in this.

Paul Saleh

As a resident of Towson with three young children and a long-term outlook (planning on being here for a long time), I greatly appreciate this perspective. The lack of collective vision for current and future development in Towson is very distressing. We should not trust developers to make decisions that are in the best interest of us citizens. Towson needs to take a slow, methodical approach to development, and one that emphasizes walkability and preservation of what limited green space we have left. Cramming high rise buildings onto small parcels and paving over green space benefits no one but the developers. I’m personally curious to know more about what role the County Executive’s office has in pushing these types of big development projects forward. We seem to get good communication and feedback from the County Council, but never any interaction or inquiry from the County Executive Office. The developers and politicians must make an effort to truly hear what the residents of Towson want and need and have that be a strong influence in the decision making process.

J Mart

Very well put Mike! We will soon see if councilman Marks serves us (his constituents), or big developers. Unfortunately he has already opened the door for over-development of 101 York Rd by advancing the PUD, ignoring the strong and unanimous objections of all the surrounding communities. Hopefully council Marks will feel the force of your cogent message backed by our persistent opposition to the proposed zoning changes and convince him to return from the dark side.

David McKibbin

Yo Mike: What can I/we do? I guess that I generally do not feel like either side gives me enough information to make an informed position (other than NIMBY). Any upcoming meetings w/Marks, etc. to openly discuss ‘our’ Towson?

Mike Batley


Email Councilman Marks, reference this article, and tell him you agree with Mike’s recommendations to wait until there is community consensus on any project or projects.