The impact of real estate development can be felt by a wide range of people, ranging from the next-door neighbor to a community as a whole. Every parcel of land in the city of Baltimore is governed by zoning regulations, which control both what the property can be used for and the siting of anything constructed on the property. Because of the potential impacts of development, it is important for citizens and community organizations to know what the laws provide and how to have an effective voice in the zoning process.
Zoning regulates both the use of land and the physical layout of development on parcels of land. In Baltimore City, zoning maps assign a zoning category to each parcel of land in the city, and the zoning code defines the kinds of uses that are permitted within each category. When the zoning of a particular property allows the type of use and the layout the property owner desires, the property owner generally has the legal right to proceed with obtaining construction permits and building the project, even if there is neighborhood opposition; exceptions may apply, i.e. environmental permitting restrictions, historical building designations, etc.. However, when the zoning code does not allow the requested use/development, there will be a public hearing in front of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, the body that has the authority to determine whether to allow the use. Any person or organization may speak at the public hearing, and it is important for those with concerns to speak up at that time.
Follow these general steps to voice your concerns most effectively at a Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals hearing. Each situation will bring specific issues and challenges, and this outline may need to be adapted to fit the needs of the particular situation. Navigating some of these steps may require advice or assistance from an attorney.
- Determine the zoning of the property. See Baltimore City Zoning Map for guidance.
- Read the zoning code to see whether the proposed use and site layout is permitted.
- Determine what action the property owner is requesting, such as a variance (seeking a relaxation of regulations because of the physical attributes of the property) or a conditional use (to allow a special type of use on the property that can only be permitted after the owner has proven certain facts about the effect of the use).
- Determine the date of any hearing on the particular type of application and the deadline for the submission of written comments. If a party is required to post notices on the property, ensure that this requirement has been satisfied.
- Review the procedural rules relative to Zoning Appeals. Examine the specific items required for consideration by the Zoning Appeals Board, make a list of them, and determine what information is needed to determine whether the property owner has met those requirements.
- Obtain copies of all information submitted to the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, including drawings and written information.
- Speak with the property owner to understand his or her goals and intentions. Raise your concerns and offer possible solutions. Request assistance from City Council members to advocate on your behalf.
- If an agreement is reached, ensure that the agreement is made in writing, reviewed by an attorney, and included in the application file.
- If no agreement can be made, attend the public hearing at City Hall. Consult an attorney to gain a thorough understanding of the hearing procedures and requirements. Organize a group of neighbors and community members to speak about the concerns. Be thorough but concise, and follow the procedures outlined by the Board in making your presentation. Whenever possible, bring photos and documentation of your concerns, submit a written version of your testimony for the record, and if a Council member agrees with the stated position, request that the Council member testify before the Board.
- If the project you oppose is approved by the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, you may have recourse by filing an appeal in the Circuit Court. However, certain restrictions apply, and it is important to understand those restrictions at the time of the hearing. Consult an attorney prior to the initial hearing if you believe you might appeal a decision that approves the project over your objections.
Following these steps, with the help of attorneys from Community Law Center, will give communities a stronger voice in the development process.