Rather than limit the terms of long-term agreements between the county and developers, perhaps the option should be eliminated altogether.
So agreed the majority of the Frederick County Council, which on Tuesday signed off on changes to legislation that would strike the provisions for such agreements from the county code. The amendment was introduced by Councilman Tony Chmelik (R) and passed by a 5-2 vote, with Republican councilmen Kirby Delauter and Billy Shreve opposed.
The amended bill comes after legislation put forth by County Executive Jan Gardner (D) that sought to impose greater restrictions for the Developer Rights and Responsibilities Agreements (DRRAs) that lock into place local zoning laws, rules and regulations. Gardner has criticized the overly expansive terms of 14 DRRA-governed development projects approved under the former Board of County Commissioners, which she said led to funding shortfalls in school construction and road projects.
The prior agreements, many of which span up to 25 years, also limited the county’s oversight and legislative ability on major swaths of the county, according to Ray Barnes, the county’s acting chief administrative officer, in comments at an earlier meeting.
Gardner’s original proposal sought to limit future agreements to projects with 1,500 or more homes and shorten the length the agreement could last to a maximum of 10 years. Her bill also required developers to provide enhanced public benefits — incentives such as land, infrastructure or school funding beyond what zoning ordinances or other county laws require — in exchange for the certainties the agreements provide.
The proposal attracted a mix of support and opposition at a public hearing last week. Chmelik framed his amendment as an attempt to simplify the complexity of the topic and end the disagreement.
As amended by the council Tuesday, such agreements would be off the table for future development projects of all sizes and scope. The terms of the 14 existing DRRA-governed projects would still be upheld.
Asked whether this will supersede state regulations, which also allow local governments to enter into long-term agreements with developers, County Attorney John Mathias was uncertain.
Chmelik said that the long-term agreements were a good option, however, noting that if a developer were to come forward seeking such an agreement from the county, the council could consider legislation to revive the option at the time.
Gardner, in a phone interview after the meeting, said she is “fine” with the amendments. The option for long-term agreements could provide some benefits for the county through the defined public benefits she proposed, but those benefits can also come through other agreements such as the provisions of rezoning, she said.
MIXED-USE DISTRICT BILL AMENDED
A proposal aimed at reviving the long-delayed Jefferson Technology Park with warehouse and distribution centers also attracted a flurry of amendments at the council meeting Tuesday.
Under the county’s current zoning ordinance, MXD-zoned projects can include residential, commercial, institutional and employment uses, with employment use defined as office, research and light manufacturing. The bill introduced by council President Bud Otis (unaffiliated) adds warehouse, wholesale and distribution activities to the list of employment uses.
New and existing MXD projects could benefit from the legislation as drafted, including those that signed Developer Rights and Responsibilities Agreements (DRRAs) that locked in place the zoning laws and other county requirements.
Legal concerns over whether the changes should apply to these long-term agreements, essentially binding contracts, created questions and concerns at a public hearing earlier this month. Critics also said the proposal was unfair to property owners who already bought homes in MXD-zoned projects without knowing the adjacent land could become warehouse sites with truck traffic, overnight operations and outdoor storage.
The eight amendments proposed by various council members Tuesday sought to address some of these concerns. Three changes were approved, one was defeated, and the remaining four were withdrawn because they conflicted with changes the council had already passed.
Two approved changes relate to where warehouse-type operations could be within a MXD-zoned project: banning them within 1 mile of any land zoned for light industrial use and preventing them from sharing a common driveway or abutting school sites. A third amendment clarifies how the bill applies to existing projects by taking out any mention of DRRAs. Instead, any mixed-use projects with a phase two approval plan could incorporate the new use through the standard process of an application and hearing before the Frederick County Planning Commission.
All but one of the changes were shared with council staff and fellow council members at or shortly before the meeting, creating several instances in which confusion and lack of preparedness complicated the council’s discussion. The council’s rules of procedure state that amendments should be submitted to staff for preparation and legal review at least three business days before the scheduled vote, which would be Friday for a Tuesday meeting.
The council will hold public hearings on the amended DRRA and MXD bills at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, according to Ragen Cherney, council chief of staff.