Conditional Uses

Besides providing our readers with information about the Transform Baltimore worksessions, we also hope to use this blog as a means to explain to the general public what certain terms and concepts that come up for discussion mean and why they are important.

One term that has been thrown around quite a bit is “conditional use.”  A conditional use is best defined as a use that doesn’t fall into any one zoning category, and that, due to the impact it has on the surrounding community, is best approved on a case by case basis. This is different from a “permitted use” or a use allowed “by right,” where no permission is needed from the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA) or City Council.

Conditional uses vary from district to district , in one zoning district a use may be permitted, whereas in another district that same use may be prohibited, or while in another district it may only be allowed through the conditional use process.  For example, a place of worship is permitted in all commercial and rowhouse zones, but is allowed only through conditional use in low density residential areas.  Another example of a conditional use is that of “neighborhood commercial” in all rowhouse zones and  in Office-Residential zones.  For a list of uses that are allowed in the city’s different zones, both as a matter of right and as conditional uses, click here.

In order to be approved for a conditional use, a property owner must go through a very specific process.  First, they must file an application with the Zoning Administrator. Within 15 business days of filing the application, the Zoning Administrator must then refer it to the Department of Transportation to determine whether a traffic-mitigation study is needed or if the developer must pay a traffic impact fee.  A site plan must also be submitted along with the application.

After the application is approved, a hearing must be held before the BMZA.  A notice of the hearing must be placed in a conspicuous area at least 30 days before it is held. During this hearing, both the applicant and the general public will be given a chance to testify.  Within 30 days of the hearing, the BMZA may choose to approve the application, approve with conditions, or deny it.  In deciding whether or not to approve a conditional use application, the BMZA must take a number of issues into consideration. These include:

  • The nature of the proposed site and surrounding area
  • Any potential traffic impact
  • The preservation of historical and cultural landmarks
  • The proximity of dwellings and areas of public gathering (churches, schools, etc.)

Conditional uses can also be revoked should the user of a conditional use violate any zoning rules or conditions set forth by the BMZA.  For a visual outline of the conditional use process, click here and go to page four.

There is also another type of conditional use known as “conditional use by ordinance.”  It is included in the current code but is not in the proposed one.  This type of conditional use is unique to Baltimore City and is not used anywhere else.  Such a process gives City Council members more control over what is built in their districts, but there are a number of significant drawbacks.  Without clear criteria for making decisions about conditional uses, the process lacks transparency and may be influenced by special interests, rather than being directly connected to the well-being of the community. The conditional use by ordinance process also adds a great deal of uncertainty for developers, and that uncertainty can be a major impediment to moving forward with projects that can be helpful for neighborhoods.  We urge the Council to carefully consider the potential impacts of taking zoning decisions away from the BMZA and placing them in the political arena.

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Gregory Friedman

Gregory Friedman

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