Baltimore City Planning Department rewriting 35-year-old zoning code

The Baltimore City Department of Planning is engaged in a two-year initiative to develop a state-of-the art rezoning code to streamline the development process — a step up from the existing code in 1971 that took more than 20 years to make.

While there have been amendments to the 1971 code, the city has not comprehensively evaluated or updated it since then. In 2006, the City adopted its first Comprehensive Master Plan in more than 35 years, said Laurie Feinberg, a project manager in the city Department of Planning’s comprehensive planning division.

A major recommendation of the new Comprehensive Plan is to modernize the zoning code for the entire city, allowing it to simplify the code; create new tools to support and guide city investments; and preserve the unique character of Baltimore City.

The city’s planning department will begin rewriting the existing zoning code with the goal of establishing a modern code that will support and guide city investment, enhance and protect neighborhood character, strengthen retail districts, and promote job growth.

The Planning Department is recruiting GBC members to serve on its rezoning task force.

The rezoning project, named “TransForm Baltimore,” will involve a community outreach campaign that will gather input from citizens, businesses, the development community, and professional organizations, Feinberg told the GBC Planning and Project Development Committee on April 9.

TransForm Baltimore began in the fall of 2007 with an internal review of the code, the results of which will be announced publicly in the next couple of months. Meetings have been held with city agencies and surrounding jurisdictions, in an effort to identify the current code’s strengths and weaknesses, she said. “We need to be on a level playing field and all agree what’s wrong and right.”

The rewrite is slated to begin winter 2008 and continue through spring 2009 with guidance from a national team of consultants. The adoption of the new zoning code is scheduled for fall 2009.

In 2007, the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals heard more than 1,095 cases needing variances, Feinberg noted. Baltimore has more than 200 overlay districts, including Planned Unit Developments and Urban Renewal Plans. “The code is simply out of line of where we want it to be,” she said.

Baltimore’s first Zoning Ordinance was approved in May 1923. They City’s grid system was established with the 1893 Topographical Survey Commission. The Washington Monument is the center of the grid. In 1904, Maryland law prohibited any buildings within one block of the Washington Monument from exceeding the height of the monument.

The Baltimore Fire of 1904 resulted in the creation of the “Burnt District Commission” – an early city planning effort. In 1931 a zoning code was adapted to include use, height and area districts. In 1950 a zoning commission was created, which began the first comprehensive zoning code rewrite. However the work of the original 1950 zoning commission was adopted as the new zoning code more than 20 years later in 1971.

Zoning and land use recommendations from the Comprehensive Master Plan are ease of use, flexibility, updated use categories to reflect modern land use practices, design standards, and parking standards to encourage transit-oriented development.

The proposed land use categories include residential districts, mixed-use with residential, mixed-use zones without residential, and parks and open space, said Feinberg. The mixed-use with residential will now also include bioscience, university, and hospital districts.

Baltimore City is in good company — rezoning progress is being followed by other big cities including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Denver.

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