Community Has A Right To Know


September 26, 1993|By MIKE BURNS | MIKE BURNS,Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

This legislation sounds like the right thing to do, letting the community have its say when any development is planned in the neighborhood.

The process might help to prevent the irate reactions of residents who awake one morning to find the backhoes and bulldozers at work next door.

Many times, the community raises important concerns only after construction has started. Then, it's too late to do something about it, or it's too costly for the developer to make the changes.

Public hearings on specific projects are usually held only if there's a change in zoning or an exception requested. If the plans slip quietly through approval by the Planning and Zoning ++ office, there is little chance that public input will be considered.

That's why the proposed Community Input bill makes sense. The measure would assure that any subdivision, apartment house, commercial or industrial development would have a public hearing. Comments and commitments made at the meeting would then be considered as part of the developer's plan filed with the county.

It wouldn't overturn zoning classifications or requirements. It would not give citizens veto power over a legal development, or add another level to the appeals process, sponsor Theresa Pierno explained.

But it might ameliorate potential problems and irritations between the developer and the surrounding property owners, she noted.

Councilwoman Pierno, whose environmental bills always seem to manage to ruffle feathers, floated the idea of community meetings for development projects back in March. The idea is similar to the development review process in Baltimore County.

Harford County was already moving toward reforming the process here. County Executive Eileen Rehrmann had named a 22-member panel to look at planning and zoning in the mushrooming numbers of communities sprouting up in Harford. Mrs. Pierno was a member of that committee, the majority of whose members represented the housing development sector.

Consequently, she decided that the group, known as the Strategic Community Planning Committee, was not moving fast enough. "Either they're going to do it or I'm going to do it," she said. "Things weren't happening on the community input issue."

Some committee members took umbrage at that description and Mrs. Pierno's impatience with their efforts to come up with a complete set of recommendations for comprehensive changes in the zoning regulations. Ideas included more flexibility for developers, as well as increased requirements.

Frank Hertsch, the committee chairman, noted that she "obviously doesn't feel constrained to work within the committee." Mrs. Rehrmann noted that Baltimore County's legislation took two years to develop through intensive committee work. She accused Mrs. Pierno of political grandstanding and divisiveness.

"Some wait until smoke clears until they take a stand, instead of taking more of a leadership role," Mrs. Pierno responded.

She and Councilwoman Susan Heselton went ahead with drafting the bill. The first public information meeting is set for 7 p.m. tomorrow at Edgewood High School, the next at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Bel Air High School.

The bill places additional burdens on the county and the developer: The county planning office would have to come up with a list of interested citizens to be notified of the input meeting, the builder would have to notify them.

Serious concerns or objections raised at the meeting would be sent to the county's Development Advisory Committee that advises the planning office on major land-use issues. The bill calls for three additional members of the committee, which is dominated by state and county agency representatives.

Like the tree preservation law, the adequate public facilities laws and the real estate transfer tax, this is seen by some as yet another measure to hamper development and raise the costs of economic growth in Harford.

The majority of the County Council was elected three years ago on a platform of controlled residential growth and stricter environmental regulation. So the trend of the legislation shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

The community input measure probably will add to the time and the cost of developing subdivisions. But the results could be well worth that extra step; developers could probably save money in legal fees and public relations damage control costs by dealing with community concerns early on. Some of the best companies already take that step to ease the development of their projects.

Clearly, citizen input shouldn't be used to thwart sensible zoning rules and land-use plans. Those who buy cheap homes next to an airport shouldn't be allowed to shut down air traffic because it is too noisy. But neither does a community have to accept all manner of environmental insult simply because the zoning code happens to allow it.

In fact, Baltimore County's system for citizen input has been working reasonably well. Not everyone is satisfied with the outcome of each case. But the community concerns are voiced early in the process to allow for open discussion.

That's what government should promote, even as it protects citizen property rights.

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