Green Spring Station — a collection of boutiques, restaurants and offices near the northern end of the Jones Falls Expressway — commands some of the highest rent in Baltimore County. Visitors can shop for French linens at Paris-based Yves Delorme, try on mink at furrier Mano Swartz, and play squash at the Green Spring Racquet Club.
Now, though, owner Foxleigh Enterprises says a County Council vote has stymied its plans for an addition and renovations, putting the Lutherville development at a competitive disadvantage. Company officials say the vote highlights what they see as flaws in the countywide zoning process that takes place every four years.
During that process, anyone can request a zoning change that could limit the development potential of another property owner's land — and may diminish its value. And while community members, county planners and environmental officials can weigh in on any request, the final decision typically is made by a single council member under a tradition known as "councilmanic courtesy."
In the case of Green Spring Station, the council voted against the recommendations of the planning staff and planning board.
"It comes down to one council person who may have no expertise in planning," said Tom Peddy, a Foxleigh principal.
Michael Friedman of the Meadows of Green Spring Homeowners Association — which petitioned for the Green Spring Station zoning change — rejects the criticism. He says the current system is fair and gives everyone a voice in land use issues.
"If the community doesn't have a say in what is taking place adjacent to their property, then I think those people who are developers would be able to institute any type of plan ... without concern for the community," said Friedman, whose neighborhood includes single-family homes and town houses near Green Spring Station. "It's absolutely essential that a larger view be taken than just a single property."
The first part of Green Spring Station was built in the late 1970s, and the site now includes boutiques, popular restaurants and Johns Hopkins medical offices. Its 50,000 square feet of retail space is fully leased. Two central buildings — the Falls and Joppa concourses — have 90,000 square feet of office space.
"People actually walk from one place to another at Green Spring Station," said Herb Fredeking, another Foxleigh principal. "And it's that walkability across the campus that we think sets us apart."
Foxleigh planned to build about 5,000 square feet of new retail at the site. The company wants to use retail rent income to offset interior and exterior renovations they say would help it compete with other locations.
It also hopes to remove two of three tennis barns at the racquet club to build a three-story office center. That plan — which is not affected by the recent zoning change but has stirred concern in the community — also would provide more parking space, they say.
The zoning vote in August 2012 has stopped plans for the new retail, and Foxleigh says it has also caused headaches for tenants. For instance, the owner of the popular Tark's Grill now can't build an outdoor refrigerator without a special variance from the county, they say.
Bridget Quinn Stickline, who owns Wee Chic, a children's boutique, said her growing business needs more space. She's had offers to move to other shopping centers, she said, but loves the atmosphere at Green Spring Station, where many of the shops are owned by women and the landlords are supportive of her business.
"It's so strange to me that Green Spring Station's being targeted, because we're the largest group of independently owned boutiques in the county," she said.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who represents that district, recommended the zoning change. Other council members, following the councilmanic courtesy practice, supported the change.
Almond and others say that Foxleigh did not provide a long-term "master plan," leaving community members to wonder whether more development was planned. Residents are also worried that more retail will further jam the parking lots, potentially leading to the construction of a parking garage.
"People just don't want to be nickeled and dimed in this piecemeal thing of constantly coming back for more," said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a land preservation organization in the county. She added that the community felt the recent zoning change was a clarification of earlier council members' intentions.
The whole Falls Road corridor is an issue of concern for Moore's organization, because of overburdened intersections and environmental issues such as flooding, she said. "It's an area where we really can't hold any more."
Peddy said it's impossible to know exactly what the future holds, especially because the site has multiple owners, but he said his company has been willing to participate in talks with the community.
Meanwhile, Foxleigh has joined a campaign that has been criticized by some community groups: a referendum drive that could let voters overturn council zoning votes in two districts in 2014.
"All we can do is make people aware, and make it an issue," Fredeking said. "We participated in the referendum to shine a light."
Critics call the developer-financed referendum campaign — an unprecedented drive that could put many of the 2012 land-use decisions on the ballot — misleading and arrogant.
Almond isn't buying the notion that the referendum supporters want reform.
"What we're dealing with is people who are used to getting their way, and they didn't get their way," said Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat whose district also includes Pikesville and Owings Mills. "If I had made a decision in their favor, they wouldn't be giving [money] toward the referendum, and they wouldn't be telling me the system's flawed, because they got their way."
Others financing the effort include the owners of Garrison Forest Plaza shopping center in Owings Mills. The county election board has not determined whether the issue can appear on the ballot, but a decision is expected to be issued next month. The referendum also would affect zoning decisions in Councilwoman Cathy Bevins' district, which includes the communities of Middle River and Essex.
No one knows for sure what a referendum could mean for dozens of zoning issues in Almond's and Bevins' districts.
"There's a real chance that this could hurt Baltimore County in general," Almond said. "If you're a new business coming to Baltimore County, and you want to put a lot of money into land or a business, and you know there's a possibility it could go to referendum in two years — why would you do that?"
Peddy and Fredeking say Foxleigh joined the referendum drive because they came to believe it was the only option for bringing attention to the zoning process.
"I don't think the council people on their own will endeavor to change it," Fredeking said, "because it's the source of their power and authority."