Supreme Court ruling raises questions on PUD process
Wednesday, 10 July 2013 11:04

“Community benefit” not at risk, says county

by Nicole Rodman

    The end of last month brought with it a number of high-profile U.S. Supreme Court decisions that made headlines nationwide.
    While the most scrutinized decisions involved the Voting Rights Act and gay marriage, one less talked-about ruling could have repercussions for the Baltimore County government.
    On June 25, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District.
    In 1994, Florida landowner Coy Koontz Sr. applied for two permits to develop 3.7 acres of land that he owned.
    Part of a 14-acre lot purchased by Koontz in 1972, much of the land was later declared a protected wetland.
    In his proposal, Koontz wished to develop the 3.7 acres of land and, in return, he offered to grant a conservation easement on the remaining acres.
    A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and the party wishing to conserve the land (in this case the St. Johns River Water Management District) that would allow for limits to be placed on development of the land while still allowing the landowner to retain the property.
    The district, however, refused to grant a development permit to Koontz unless he also agreed to pay for improvements to government land separate from the land he wished to develop.
  

Finding these demands unreasonable, Koontz took the district to court.
    In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Koontz, saying that regulatory officials could not require a landowner to pay for improvements to unrelated land as a condition for receiving a development permit.
    The decision issued last month raises questions regarding the “community benefit” portion of Baltimore County’s Planned Unit Development (PUD) process.
    According to the county website, PUD is “an optional process” that “does not establish new zoning, but is intended to create a development ‘in which residential and/or commercial uses are approved subject to restrictions calculated to achieve the compatible and efficient use of land, including the consideration of any detrimental impact upon adjacent residential communities.’ ”
    During the PUD process, the county examines a proposed development project, accepts community comment on the proposal and determines whether or not to approve a PUD based on whether or not a project is in the best interest of the community.
    The PUD process is not mandatory for developers. If they do not submit a PUD application, developers may also go through the normal permitting process.
    The PUD process, which may take years to navigate, includes submitting an application to the Baltimore County Council, holding two different community input meetings and submitting a detailed concept plan to county officials.
    As part of the concept plan, developers must include studies on the project’s impact on the community, including impacts on traffic, the environment, schools, police and other public groups and facilities.
    The concept plan is then reviewed by the county, a hearing is held and, eventually, a decision is made on whether or not to approve a PUD for the project.
    As part of the PUD process, applicants are required to include a community benefit that may include “a capital improvement benefit to a county or state-owned facility or a county Neighborspace owned property.”
    A recent example of this type of community benefit is the renovation of the Heritage Park gazebo paid for by local developer John Vontran as part of getting PUD approval for his development of new houses on Yorkway.
    As noted in a March 2011 Eagle report, “upgrades to the gazebo are part of a ‘community benefit’ requirement that was set up in the Yorkway Planned Unit Development (PUD).”
    Last March, Craftsmen Developers, then-developer of the former North Point Drive-In site, received PUD approval after agreeing to pay $150,000 for the construction of a new concession stand at North Point State Park and a fishing pier at Battle Grove Park.
    In cases such as these,  developers are required to pay for improvements to government land unrelated to their project as a condition of receiving PUD approval from Baltimore County.
    When asked if the community benefit portion of the PUD process is legal in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, Arnold Jablon, director of the Baltimore County Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections, indicated that he believes it is legal.
    In an e-mail to The Eagle he wrote, “In my opinion, the decision does not impact the PUD process.”
    Jablon noted that, while the Koontz case involved a permitting issue, the county’s PUD process is not a permitting process.
    “The public benefit as part of the PUD process is not part of the permitting process, thus does not involve the issuance of a permit, rather it is part of an alternative methodology devised to approve development — to wit: provide certain public benefits and be eligible for the PUD process,” Jablon explained.
    He added, “If one chooses not to go through a PUD process, the standard development process is available. It has nothing to do with the issuance of permits.”
    Thomas Peddicord, legal counsel and secretary for the Baltimore County Council, agreed that the case would not affect the PUD process.
    Peddicord said that the ruling would not apply since the community benefit portion of the PUD process must be related to the development project being proposed.
    Responding to The Eagle’s inquiry on Monday, Peddicord wrote, “That benefit must be to an onsite or nearby facility for use by community residents, or to a volunteer fire company that serves the PUD; the benefit is related to the proposed PUD project.”
    For more on the county’s PUD process, visit www.baltimorecountymd.gov/Agencies/planning/PUD/.