An Interview with Jennifer Meacham, GIS Analyst, Baltimore County Department of Planning by Kristen E. Humphrey, Local Assistance and Training Planner
If you are a long-time resident of Baltimore County and have participated in the county’s quadrennial (every four years) rezoning efforts, as either a property owner or interested citizen or as a planner and an astute observer of zoning practices around the state, you may find the process routine. However, it is anything but routine: the county’s Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP) is unique in both its structure and frequency, as my interview with Jennifer Meacham, GIS Analyst with the Baltimore County Planning Department and creator of an exciting new online dashboard, will attest. Here’s the story:
What is the CZMP? How does it work and what is its primary purpose?
The Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP) is one of the principle ways the official zoning map can be changed in Baltimore County. It takes place every four years on an exact schedule specified in the Baltimore County Code.
This process is apparently unique, not just in Maryland, but across the country. How and when did it come about?
The frequency with which Baltimore County’s CZMP occurs is unique because rezoning processes in other jurisdictions typically occur after the adoption of a master plan or community plan which could lead to a change in an underlying zone. Master plans and community plans are generally created once every ten years, sometimes even less frequently.
Baltimore County first adopted its zoning regulations on March 30, 1955. The CZMP was established by Bill 72-69 and added to Baltimore County Code in 1969. The first quadrennial CZMP was conducted in 1976 as a means of comprehensively changing the zoning map on a regular, prescribed basis. Legislation has been written to modify the intricacies of the process since its launch in 1976, but the quadrennial timeline remains in effect today.
Who generally submits zoning requests and what are the most common types of requests?
Any citizen may request a zoning change on any property in the county, although the usual participants in the process are individual landowners, contract purchasers, community organizations, as well as Baltimore County’s Planning staff, Planning Board, and County Council members.
The most common requests during the recent CZMPs have been to add Automotive Services districts to commercial zones, allowing for gas stations with fuel service, and add the Neighborhood Commons district to land that is already protected in the county. The Neighborhood Commons district is established to promote more livable communities through the preservation of land for the purposes of community parks, gardens, and natural areas.
As the lead agency, how does Baltimore County Planning facilitate the CZMP
As the lead agency, the Baltimore County Department of Planning facilitates the management of the process from beginning to end. The Department makes a staff recommendation after all “issues” (areas in Baltimore County where an applicant would like to change the zoning) have been raised and input from other county agencies has been collected. The Department is also responsible for updating the electronic zoning map after the CZMP is completed.
Which other agencies participate and what are their roles in the CZMP?
In addition to the Department of Planning, four Baltimore County agencies participate in the process including the:
- Department of Economic and Workforce Development
- Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability
- Department of Public Works – Water, Sewer and Traffic
- Department of Recreation and Parks
The Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Planning reviews issues submitted via the CZMP to ensure they are in line with the historic preservation policies and guidelines.
Each of these agencies reviews every issue and provides comments on those related to their specific goals and guidelines. Finally, state law requires that the zoning map be consistent with the county’s master plan. The Baltimore County Department of Planning reviews each issue for consistency with the master plan and staff gives recommendations to the County Council based on this requirement.
What are the timeline and major milestones in the process? How and at what point(s) does the public typically participate?
The CZMP is a twelve-month process. It is initiated with an open filing period during which the public, Department of Planning staff, as well as Planning Board and County Council members can raise an issue and request a new zone.
The stages of the process are recorded in a Log of Issues. This document starts by recording existing zones and requested zoning changes, then builds throughout the process to include the staff and Planning Board recommendations, and ultimately the County Council decision.
Planning Board public hearings are held in each of the County’s seven councilmanic districts so the Board hears any support or opposition from the public about the issues. The Planning Board then makes a recommendation, which is added to the Log of Issues.
Baltimore County Council public hearings are held after the Planning Board public hearings. The County Council will make a final vote deciding the zoning for every issue. The final decision is added to the Log of Issues, and the electronic zoning map is updated by Department of Planning staff. Below is an example of the 2020 CZMP final Log of Issues.
Generally speaking, what are the pros and cons and benefits or particular challenges of the CZMP (compared perhaps to other systems having a rolling time frame/application process)?
A benefit of the CZMP is that, by occurring every four years, it allows applicants who do not obtain their requested rezoning during a particular cycle to request rezoning again in just a few years.
A potential disadvantage is that of spot zoning, wherein very small areas are zoned completely differently than larger, surrounding areas.
How does the process relate to BaltimoreCounty’s overall planning strategies (e.g., in the areas of smart growth, the URDL, historic preservation, or other key issues)?
Because county agencies review every issue and the Department of Planning makes staff recommendations, the county is able to reference their guiding documents to determine whether a zoning request is consistent or inconsistent with the county’s priorities. The Baltimore County Master Plan is the guiding document used in the development of the Planning staff recommendation. The goals of Master Plan 2020 are to continue successful growth management practices, create and maintain sustainable communities, and strengthen resource conservation and protection.
We understand that a new online tool has been developed to enhance public participation. Tell us about the CZMP 2020 Dashboard.
One of the core values of County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr.’s administration is transparency. Baltimore County government “promotes a culture of openness, [to] make information accessible, and communicate honestly.” (Baltimore County Enterprise Strategic Plan, 2019-2020)
In response to the County Executive’s open data initiative, the Department of Planning developed an interactive web-based dashboard using ESRI’s ArcGIS Online Operations Dashboard template. The CZMP dashboard is one of many efforts by the Department of Planning to offer data to the public in a user-friendly and meaningful way.
As creator of the dashboard, what were the particular needs you identified (e.g., data gaps, accessibility, analysis/interpretability of data) that you sought to address with the dashboard?
In creating the dashboard, we considered process, rezoning, and property information that we thought would be of most interest to the average citizen, including acreage, whether the properties are in a rural or urban area (i.e., whether it is inside or outside the County’s Urban Rural Demarcation Line [URDL]), or fall within a Chesapeake Bay Critical Area or historic district. A screenshot of the dashboard can be seen below:
As mentioned, each rezoning issue has a set of materials associated with it, such as an application with a justification statement and comments from various county agencies. Our goal was to make available as much information as possible for online viewing. Previously, this information was only accessible by scheduling an appointment to review the issue file in the Planning office.
How does the dashboard address these issues and enhance the CZMP process?
This has already made an impact at the first two Planning Board public hearings, which took place in early March. Due to the COVID-19 virus, the remainder of CZMP public hearings will take place in a virtual/online format. Staff have already noticed, however, that most attendees now have information about the issues when they arrive at the hearings. In the past, citizens would arrive seeking basic information about an issue in their neighborhood. The result has been citizens are more informed and better prepared to participate in this public process.
What feedback, if any, have you received on the dashboard so far?
So far, feedback on the CZMP dashboard has been positive. Via graphs and charts, the dashboard visually displays how much land (in acres) is impacted by an individual issue’s boundaries, the combined effects of all the issues, as well as which county resources are affected, and how much of the impact will be on urban vs. rural land. These statistics can be shown on a countywide scale, by council district, and at the individual issue level as well. As data is updated throughout the process, the graphics displayed on the dashboard are updated in real time.
What lessons learned would you share with other communities and stakeholders who might be considering a similar cyclical zoning review process or who may be seeking to develop a similar product?
We have learned that a visual mapping tool (such as ESRI’s Operations Dashboard template) is a great way to show data and meaningful statistics to the public. Many jurisdictions including Baltimore County are using the power of this tool to better drive public processes and help citizens make more informed decisions. The County recently launched BCSTAT, “Baltimore County’s first data-driven performance management program, which aims to improve performance, ensure data quality, enhance transparency, and increase accountability across government.” (Baltimore County Press Release for BCSTAT, March 4, 2020.)
Thus, with its focus on transparency and making meaningful decisions based on data and metrics, Baltimore County is looking forward to publishing more operation dashboard applications in the future. Further, we hope our experience in developing the CZMP dashboard inspires other planning departments and even citizen planners to develop similar products and have more meaningful and informed conversations with those interested in becoming involved in the public process.
For More information about Baltimore County’s Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP) or the Department’s new CZMP 2020 Dashboard, contact Jennifer Meacham, GIS Analyst at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (410) 887-3521.