Parking could be harder to come by at some Baltimore County shopping centers this Christmas but not because of a sudden change in the economy.
A proposal to allow some shopping centers to reduce the number of parking spaces required by the county has some activists worried it will also limit community input.
Shopping centers with 100,000 square-feet or more of retail space could seek county approval for as much as a 40 percent reduction in the number of parking spaces required by county law under a bill sponsored by Councilman John Olszeweski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat.
Activists are concerned the new rules could be used to allow expansion of shopping centers in a way that would not be allowed by current law. They also expressed concern that the bill allows mall owners to seek approval from Arnold Jablon, the director of Permits, Approvals and Inspections, rather than through a public variance process.
"I think, no matter what you call it in the bill, this is a variance," said Michael Pierce, a Kingsville activist, adding that the issue is best handled by the county's administrative law judges. "They have one [request] at least every month."
Allowing the administrative law judges would provide opportunity for public notice on requested changes and allow for public comment.
"The problem with the process with the director of PAI would be that nobody knows it's happening," Pierce said. "There's no notification. There's no [public] result unless you happen to come across a letter in the file you may not even know it happened."
Alan Zuckerberg, president of the Pikesville Community Corporation, told the council his group also opposes the proposed process because of its lack of public notice and participation.
"We're already seeing Design Review Committee meetings without notes—nothing to see why a decision was made," Zuckerberg said. "This is going to be the same kind of thing."
Current law requires shopping centers to provide five spaces for every 1,000 square-feet of retail space. Under Olszewski's bill, shopping centers could ask to reduce that requirement to just 3 spaces per 1,000 square-feet—a 200-space reduction for typical new grocery store.
"Even if you were to pass this bill, which we think is really bad for us, 100,000 square-feet does not make a large shopping center," Zuckerberg said. "The Giant supermarket on Old Court Road is a 70,000 square-foot building in and of itself. To make 100,000 square-foot shopping center, in leasable space, doesn't take a lot more than that."
The reductions to parking in the bill would be in additions to other parking variances already approved by the county.
"I don't think that should be the case," Pierce said. "Perring Plaza already has been granted a 20 percent reduction in parking. We certainly don't want the provisions of this bill to allow another 40 percent reduction. The 40 percent should be the total."
Olszewski said the intent is to provide a balance between the county's parking requirements and the parking some underutilized shopping centers actually need.
"A lot of our big shopping centers are actually empty until around the Christmas holidays," Olszewski said.
"This is not an attempt to get more retail space," Olszewski said. "I'm sure there will be some but also at the same time it will allow for individual shopping centers to put in more pervious surfaces, as well."
Olszewski said the reductions were not automatic.
"I think it would be on a case by case basis," Olszewski said.
In return for the reduction, the county could require the center to provide public amenities including more attractive landscaping, changes to the traffic flow in the shopping center lot, pedestrian-friendly improvements, changes to lighting, additional open space or incorporation of sustainable storm water management practices.
Some of the changes would protect the Chesapeake Bay, according to Olszewski.
"We have all this impervious surface that we're clearing up," Olszewski said.
The bill is scheduled for a Monday vote. If five council members vote in favor, the law would take affect on July 16.