Baltimore's original 1730 survey consisted of several streets in a traditional grid pattern. As the town slowly expanded streets were extended from the original grid and the acquisition of property for new streets was relatively easy because land was either publicly owned or worth very little. By the 1780s, however, Baltimore was growing very quickly and the process of street improvement became more complex. Dozens of streets had to be extended and many others required widening and straightening. Each of these actions was expensive and also required acquisitions of privately owned property considered more valuable.
In 1783, the state legislature authorized the Baltimore Town Commissioners to widen Hanover Lane when two-thirds of the property owners fronting it agreed to divide the cost for the work. Money was to be collected through payments of benefits (the assessed increase in value of private property adjacent to the improved street) and a special tax levy. Damage costs (the value of private property condemned for public use) were credited to property owners against benefit charges. The process of carrying out benefit and damage assessments required the preparation of a plat detailing proposed improvements and a public notice of intent.
Basically the same procedure preceded every street improvement project in Baltimore for the next fifty years, except that a specifically appointed team of assessors handled the job of benefit and damage assessment. The 1797 charter did not give the municipality condemnation power or the authority to levy benefit charges. Every type of street improvement requiring these actions still depended upon approval by the state legislature.
In 1817, the state legislature authorized a plat of all existing Baltimore streets along with representation of any necessary street improvements. The municipality was empowered to execute any of the improvements noted on the plat, provided two-thirds of those who were to have property condemned for a project approved. In 1836, and again in 1839, the legislature transferred general condemnation power to the municipal government.
To make the most of this authority, the municipality in 1841 created a board of commissioners for opening streets. This body was to perform all the duties associated with obtaining property for street improvements, including preparation of plats, public notification, and assessment of benefits and damages. An attempt to streamline the city's government led to the abolition of this board in 1861 and transfer of its responsibilities to the Appeal Tax Court. After five years, however, the board was re-established.
The work of the board greatly increased beginning in the 1880s, primarily because bond issues such as the "Five Million Loan" of 1882 and the "Six Million Loan" of 1892 provided large sums for street improvement. The 1888 annexation also expanded the number of streets requiring attention. From 1904 to 1907 the board devoted most of its efforts to acquiring property for widening streets in the area burned during the 1904 fire. During the 1920s, the agency's activities reached a zenith after the municipality acquired hundreds of new streets through the 1918 annexation.
No significant changes have been made regarding the process of improving streets during this century, but administrative responsibility for the process has changed somewhat. The 1946 city charter did away with the board of commissioners of opening streets and placed its duties in a department of assessments. In 1975, an authority over street properties was placed in the department of public works, where it remains today.
For further information see Jacob H. Hollander, The Financial History of Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1899); Leonard 0. Rea, The Financial History of Baltimore, 1900-1926 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1929); Laws of Maryland, 1817, ch. 148, 1835, ch. 390, and 1838, ch. 226; ord. 46 (1836); ord. 10 (1841); ord. 945 (1975); and the Baltimore City Charter of 1946.