When the white signs started going up on parks and playgrounds in Baltimore County, the phones started ringing in County Council offices.
All seven council members are using a new maneuver to try to protect public parks and open spaces from being developed during the county's once-every-four-years rezoning process. But many residents have been confused by the rezoning signs and the official notification letters, and in some cases, council members say, they have spread incorrect information about the future of the parks.
"We've received a lot of calls," said Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican. "A lady came up to me in church asking me to explain it."
Crandell and other council members want to put a designation called "neighborhood commons" on thousands of acres of parks, schools and open spaces in the county during this round of comprehensive rezoning.
Properties designated neighborhood commons cannot be developed, no matter what the underlying zoning allows. A property owner who wants to sell or develop the land would have to get the designation removed during rezoning.
The designation was originally created to be used mainly on community association properties, but council members expanded it last year to include county-owned properties.
Their goal is to keep parkland green and undeveloped — and perhaps prevent a repeat of the controversial sale of the North Point Government Center, a Dundalk property that's slated to become a shopping center over the objections of many local residents.
In order to sell the government center, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz needed only one vote from the County Council. The council approved the sale in 2013, but the deal has been tied up in legal and other issues.
If the county is going to sell land, Councilman Tom Quirk, said, there should be a more extensive process. That's where neighborhood commons comes in, requiring the second step of removing the designation during comprehensive rezoning.
"It's a desire from the County Council to want to have input," said Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat. "Without this, it's more of an administrative or executive-type decision. With neighborhood commons, it becomes the people's decision."
Quirk is proposing to put neighborhood commons on about 400 acres of land in his district in the southwestern part of the county.
Crandell is flagging nearly 900 acres of land for neighborhood commons in his district, which includes Dundalk and Essex.
"It's about putting another layer of protection on parkland and open space," Crandell said.
He is not proposing the designation for the government center, he said, because the redevelopment there is already stalled in a tangle of legal issues.
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, is proposing neighborhood commons for 13 properties in her district in the northeastern part of the county. She supported the North Point Government Center sale, but said the deal opened many people's eyes to the possibility that government land could be sold to developers.
"There were a lot of conversations after that happened with people saying, 'I didn't know that was possible,'" Bevins said.
Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican whose district stretches to Towson, is using neighborhood commons most aggressively. He's proposed it for 1,500 acres of land, including every public school and public park in his district.
"I've always thought a park is what people think it is. A park should be undeveloped property and it shouldn't carry a development potential," Marks said.
Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, plans to put the designation on hundreds of acres of land in his district in the northern part of the county.
Kach said residents of his district are still upset that a park was sacrificed to build a new Mays Chapel Elementary School in Timonium.
Kach said putting the neighborhood commons designation on parks will "slow down the process."
"The county can't just decide to sell it tomorrow," he said.
In the western part of the county, Councilman Julian Jones flagged only a couple of properties for neighborhood commons. One is a 258-acre tract, once proposed for a megachurch, that the county bought in 2014.
Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said he wants to ensure the land becomes a park as promised.
Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, is proposing neighborhood commons for two properties in the northwest part of the county, both completely undeveloped properties.
In addition to the council members' proposals for neighborhood commons, developers, property owners and county planners have proposed scores of other zoning changes across the county.
The county's planning board is holding public hearings on the zoning proposals. The County Council plans public hearings in June. A list of proposals and the schedule is posted at baltimorecountymd.gov/czmp.
Almond said council members will weigh input on the zoning changes carefully before voting in August.
"I listen to both sides — whoever is putting the zoning request in, whoever is against it. I visit the site. I talk to whoever wants to talk to me about it," Almond said. "It's a very big responsibility that I think we all take seriously."