What is Land Use Planning?

Land use planning generally involves an analysis of a landscape, including its hydrology, geology, and soils, and, based on that analysis, provides a blueprint for conservation and development. Smart land use planning directs utilization of the land to accommodate a variety of needs while maintaining a functioning ecosystem and healthy natural resources for the long term. Smart growth is a form of land use planning that is popular today. It is designed to contain sprawl development, preserve the land with the best soils for agriculture, and maintain an adequate amount and distribution of habitat and resource lands.

The Plan for the Valleys was a pioneering land use study prepared for the Valleys Planning Council in the early 1960s. It was recently hailed as “the gold standard in progressive planning” by the American Planning Council, which honored the plan with its National Landmark Planning Award in 2010. This plan was an early effort in ecological-based land use planning and laid the foundation for much of the policy and regulations that exist in Baltimore County today. As a result of good planning in Baltimore County, 2/3 of the county today is zoned “Resource Conservation,” and the bulk of the county’s population (almost 90%) live on 1/3 of the land zoned “Density Residential.”

One of the most effective components of Baltimore County’s planned growth control is the Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL, pronounced irrdle). This line was created in 1967 and restricts the delivery of public water and sewer service to only 1/3 of the county’s land area. Baltimore County is perhaps unique in that it contains no incorporated towns or municipalities. The urban area is the land within the URDL and everything outside the line is rural.

The VPC and its constituents work consistently to maintain the integrity of the URDL — literally holding the line — and steadfastly oppose attempts to alter the line or extend public water and sewer beyond the line. Baltimore County has been fairly vigilant about maintaining the line, although a number of “single house” connections outside the URDL have been approved. While hardship cases near the line are tempting to accommodate, the VPC believes that giving into requests for extensions is a chink in the armor that we cannot afford. Exceptions add up over time and can result in a death by a thousand cuts.

Land use and development in Baltimore County is guided primarily by the Baltimore County Master Plan. This large, comprehensive plan is updated every 10 years and receives a good deal of community input. The VPC is very active in the updating process and makes extensive comments. The 2020 plan was adopted in November 2010.


Planning and preservation are tools and actions that allow the residents of a community to guide its future. If you do not plan or fail to act on plans, the future will unfold based on someone else’s ideas and actions or happenstance. Plans are challenging and sometimes tedious to produce. Citizens have conflicting ideas and expectations. The planning process helps to inform and stimulate thinking. Common ground is eventually found. When citizens have helped develop a plan, they are more engaged in its implementation and defense.

Preservation is a result of planning. Take the Rural Legacy areas, for example. Analysis showed where large blocks of land with good soils existed. Those areas were designated for preservation by conservation easement and a dedicated source of funds to purchase development rights was established. The desired result is occurring, and large chunks of fertile farmland are now permanently preserved, and more land in these areas is being protected every year. Without this forward thinking (i.e., planning), and subsequent action, farming would become unviable in many areas due to fragmentation of the rural area and incompatible land uses.

Preservation also incorporates a personal kind of planning, that is, family and estate planning. Farmers typically have to decide how to hand the farm down to the next generation. Should they split up the farm, sell it off in entirety, develop a portion, or put the farm into preservation? There is a lot to consider. Baltimore County is fortunate to have a number of good local land trusts who can help a farmer evaluate these critical options and develop a plan that is good for the family, the farm, and the community.

Current Planning Projects

The VPC is always involved in a variety of short- and long-term planning projects. Staff and board members often serve on committees that are working on specific plans or issues. Recent collaborative planning efforts include preparation of the Baltimore County Master Plan 2030, the redevelopment plan for the state’s Rosewood facility, recommendations to revise the county’s RC2 (agricultural preservation) zoning regulations, and study and recommendations for improving stormwater management.

VPC staff and members also participate in the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP) that occurs every four years. During this process, any person or entity can request a change in zoning on any property. Planning and community associations often submit requests to change the zoning on a range of properties that have been targeted for a specific reason, often environmental concerns.

VPC staff and board members also participate in larger efforts, such as forest management and sustainability. The county environmental agency hosts a workgroup on this topic. Issues being discussed include deer overpopulation, invasive species, stressors to oak tree population, fragmentation of privately-owned forest resources, constructive utilization of yard waste, stream buffers, easements, and many others.

There are many planning initiatives underway at any given time some led by the VPC and others where the VPC is a participant. Plans are only as good as the input offered in the planning process, so it is very important to have informed people on the team.

Milestones in Baltimore County Planning and Zoning

  • 1962 Valleys Planning Council formed
  • 1964 The Plan for the Valleys published
  • 1967 Urban Rural Demarcation Line (URDL) established
  • 1967 Maryland Environmental Trust created
  • 1972 First Baltimore County Master Plan developed
  • 1975 Resource Conservation Zones created (RC2, RC3, RC4, and RC5)
  • 1976 Worthington Valley National Register Historic District created
  • 1976 Comprehensive Zoning Map Process initiated
  • 1979 Western Run/Belfast Valley National Register Historic District created
  • 1980 State stormwater regulations created
  • 1980 Greenspring Valley National Register Historic District created
  • 1986 Land Preservation Trust launched
  • 1987 County environment agency created
  • 1988 County creates stream, wetland, and floodplain regulations
  • 1988 Caves Valley Land Trust launched
  • 1989 Supplement to the Plan for the Valleys published
  • 1998 Piney Run Rural Legacy Area designated
  • 2000 Additional RC zones created (RC6 and RC7)
  • 2004 RC8 zone created
  • 2005 Rural Road Design Standards Study published by VPC
  • 2008 Baltimore County adopts Rural Road design standards
  • 2010 Baltimore County Master Plan 2020 adopted with first Water Resources Element
  • 2012 VPC celebrates 50th Anniversary
  • 2012 VPC Documentary – Designing With Nature: the Plan For The Valleys premieres
  • 2014 A Historical Review of the Planning and Zoning of Rural Baltimore County, MD 1945-2014 is published
  • 2022 VPC prepares to celebrate its COVID-delayed 60th anniversary