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The town of Bel Air is continuing to hone its plan for reclassifying most of downtown using the philosophy of form-based zoning.

A second public forum drew about 15 people to Town Hall on Jan. 27, most of them developers or those who work with developers.

The town's board of commissioners agreed this past fall to study how form-based zoning regulations could work in Bel Air and is working with consultants Environmental Resources Management and EDSA.

In a nutshell, form-based zoning is "less based on uses, but more to do with how development looks, its physical appearance, its form," said project manager Clive Graham, of Environmental Resources Management, at the forum.

A major goal is to eliminate the current overlay districts and simplify the zoning process.

In addition to eight zoning districts in the central area along Route 1 and up Main Street, the town now has five overlay districts.

The main difference of the proposal is to separate the areas immediately east and west of Bond Street into two districts.

The strip to the east, including Main Street, would be zoned B2, for central business. The strip west of Bond and extending down Route 1 would be B3A, or central business gateway. Parcels along the edges of those areas would be B2A.

Currently, most of that area is zoned for central business, with Route 1 and a small section at Bond's northwest end zoned B3, for general business.

Then there are overlays designating the entire central area as "town center," its surroundings "gateway" and parcels at the edges of those, "transition."

As for what the zoning entails, the new B2, B2A and B3A designations are significant for allowing buildings five feet taller in the central business and gateway areas, prohibiting parking to the side of buildings in the central business area, not allowing drive-through windows for retail or restaurant use in any areas except the general business gateway, specifying maximum floor area for buildings and specifying how much of a property's front must include a building wall.

For example, properties in the central business zone would be required to have 100 percent of their front occupied by a building wall, with possible exceptions for driveways or walkways.

The general goal is to allow growth and promote an urban character in the central area while keeping a small-town feel, Graham said, echoing a sentiment that many people did not want Bel Air to look like Towson in Baltimore County.

The idea for form-based zoning "did not come out of the blue" but is based on last year's comprehensive plan, as well as a study of the Route 1 corridor that, among other conclusions, found a need to strengthen the connection between Main Street and Route 1, Graham said.

The ultimate result is likely to be somewhere between conventional zoning and form-based zoning, not strictly the latter, Graham said.

The first public forum was held Nov. 10. The town hopes to draft proposed zoning regulations in February and tentatively aims to present them to the planning commission on March 4, Graham said.

At the Jan. 27 meeting, consultants summed up the feedback given during the first forum, which included considering sub-dividing the downtown area into corridors of Main Street, Bond Street, Hickory Avenue and Route 1.

Several forum attendees made comments and suggestions that the consultants said they will consider in making revisions.

Carol Deibel, director of planning and zoning for Bel Air, said she was very pleased with the latest forum and the overall process is going well so far.

"I think we got some very good feedback and I really believe everything is coming together," she said. "Long term, I am excited about the prospect of the modification to the development regulations because I really think it's going to help us better develop downtown."

The form-based approach "is a much better way to handle development when you are working with infill development," Deibel said.


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