Balto. Co. Ques­tion K? A moot point

Our view: The out­let mall is com­ing whether you vote yea or nay

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

Bal­ti­more County vot­ers face some enor­mously con­se­quen­tial de­ci­sions on the bal­lot next month, but Ques­tion K isn’t one of them. Vote for it or vote against it, and the re­sult is go­ing to be the same: Are­gional out­let shop­ping cen­ter is go­ing to be built in White Marsh. Here’s the story.

In 2014, Paragon Out­let Part­ners agreed to buy a large tract near the in­ter­sec­tion of In­ter­state 95 and Mary­land 43 and an­nounced plans to build a $100 mil­lion out­let cen­ter, 250 apart­ments and some of­fice build­ings. That pro­posal re­placed a pre­vi­ously ap­proved plan for the tract that in­cluded 1,250 apart­ments, plus of­fice space, re­tail and other projects. Re­ac­tion from the com­mu­nity was mixed, with some happy to see such a large apart­ment project scaled back but many oth­ers (in­clud­ing some lo­cal com­mu­nity as­so­ci­a­tion lead­ers) voiced con­cerns about traf­fic and pos­si­ble stormwa­ter im­pacts on nearby streams. Re­ac­tion from nearby busi­nesses — specif­i­cally the own­ers of White Marsh Mall and The Av­enue at White Marsh — was de­cid­edly neg­a­tive, and they worked to gal­va­nize op­po­si­tion to it in the county’s de­vel­op­ment re­view process.

The prop­erty was not zoned for ei­ther the orig­i­nal plan or for an out­let mall. The apart­ment-cen­tric pro­posal was au­tho­rized through a planned unit de­vel­op­ment, and Paragon sought to amend the PUD to ac­com­mo­date its project. That trig­gered as­sorted op­por­tu­ni­ties for ap­peals and lit­i­ga­tion that stretched over the last two years.

In the mid­dle of that process, County Coun­cil­woman Cathy Bevins spon­sored leg­is­la­tion declar­ing a “re­gional out­let shop­ping cen­ter” that “pre­dom­i­nantly con­tains man­u­fac­tur­ers’ and re­tail­ers’ out­let stores sell­ing brand-name mer­chan­dise at a dis­count” would be a per­mit­ted use in cer­tain types of in­dus­tri­ally zoned land, pro­vided the par­cel is at least 45 acres and ad­ja­cent to In­ter­state 95. In other words, Paragon would be able to build its out­let cen­ter with­out wor­ry­ing about mod­i­fy­ing the pre­vi­ously ap­proved planned unit de­vel­op­ment. The coun­cil passed it 7-0.

In an echo of an ear­lier fight over the de­vel­op­ment of a Weg­mans gro­cery store and other re­tail near Owings Mills Mall, Gen­eral Growth Prop­er­ties bankrolled an ef­fort to pe­ti­tion the law to ref­er­en­dum. It suc­ceeded, and the ques­tion of whether to ac­cept or re­ject it is what’s now be­fore the vot­ers.

In the mean­time, though, de­vel­op­ments have over­taken the ref­er­en­dum. Paragon has, so far, pre­vailed in county ad­min­is­tra­tive hear­ings and in the courts, and it has made cer­tain key con­ces­sions, such as agree­ing to in­stall more modern stormwa­ter con­trol sys­tems and to up­grade road ac­cess to the project. This sum­mer, Paragon and Gen­eral Growth came to an agree­ment (terms not dis­closed), and the mall owner dropped its op­po­si­tion. And fi­nally, Ms. Bevins re­zoned the prop­erty through the county’s qua­dren­nial Com­pre­hen­sive Zon­ing Map Process, so the leg­is­la­tion up for ref­er­en­dum is now un­nec­es­sary.

None­the­less, the law re­mains on the books and the ref­er­en­dum on the bal­lot. So what’s a county voter to do?

You could con­sider it a sym­bolic ref­er­en­dum on the project. If you think it would be great to have an out­let mall in Bal­ti­more County, vote yes. If not, vote no, even though it won’t af­fect the out­come. But we don’t think that’s the best way to ap­proach it. The ref­er­en­dum is county-wide, but the im­pact of the project is lo­cal. The peo­ple whose opin­ions should re­ally count in the mat­ter are those who live near the project, and they’ll get a chance to ex­press them if and when Ms. Bevins runs for re-elec­tion. She is con­fi­dent that the out­let mall will be an as­set to the area and an im­por­tant eco­nomic driver — not to men­tion bet­ter than the mega-apart­ment plan that had pre­vi­ously been ap­proved for the site. She be­lieves most of her con­stituents agree.

The bet­ter way to look at it, we be­lieve, is through the lens of process. The leg­is­la­tion now up for ref­er­en­dum was an avowed at­tempt by Ms. Bevins to short-cir­cuit the back-and-forth of ap­peals to a pro­posed PUD change that could have dragged on for years. That’s not the right way to han­dle a land use dis­pute. We take no po­si­tion on the mer­its of the out­let mall it­self, and we ap­pre­ci­ate that Ms. Bevins even­tu­ally han­dled the mat­ter the right way — through the CZMP. But we would ad­vise vot­ing against this ref­er­en­dum sim­ply so that the leg­is­la­tion isn’t al­lowed to stand as a prece­dent.

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