Balto. Co. Question K? A moot point
Our view: The outlet mall is coming whether you vote yea or nay
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.