Bill to increase development input hotly debated

November 21, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

More than 200 people packed Harford County Council chambers Tuesday night supporting and opposing a controversial bill seeking more community input in the development process.

While dozens of individuals praised the proposed legislation that would give residents a chance to comment on what is being built in their neighborhood, others -- representing Realtors, builders and business interests -- called the proposal an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

At issue is a bill introduced before the County Council last month by Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C, and Susan B. Heselton, R-District A.

The bill would require that a community input meeting be held xTC before plans for residential, commercial and industrial subdivisions are filed with the Department of Planning and Zoning.

"This bill is completely redundant," said Ronald Coron of the Harford County Contractors Association. Noting that the county already allows public input in the wetlands and agricultural preservation programs and in revising the master plan every four years, he said his association was adamantly opposed to the bill.

"It will defer, delay and even eliminate some building in the county," he said.

But Barry Stansbury, a resident of Peach Orchard Road, called the bill "a common-sense piece of legislation that should have been enacted 20 years ago."

Like many others at the meeting, he said there is no other forum for residents to express concern or make suggestions about development around them.

Mrs. Pierno, who was elected three years ago on the promise of giving citizens more input in the development process, says the proposed law would prevent a situation where people become aware of planned changes in their neighborhood only as the bulldozers are breaking ground.

The bill requires that the community meeting be advertised in advance and that comments and recommendations made by citizens at the meeting be recorded and attached to the developer's plan filed with the planning department. Currently, a public hearing is required only if a developer's plans involve a proposed zoning variance or exception.

Mrs. Pierno said that the cost to the county would range from $16,000 to $30,000 a year, including administrative work, the posting of notices and planners' time in attending meetings.

Those who make a living developing property have criticized the bill, saying that every new layer of government added to the approval process delays construction and discourages new business.

"It takes two years now to take property from undeveloped land to developed lots," said Don Stephen of the Harford chapter of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland. "This will add at least four months to the process."

He suggested that instead, community input be incorporated into the Development Advisory Council, a board of state and county agency representatives that reviews development plans after they've received preliminary approval.

Roger Mainster, president of the Harford County Association of Realtors, also faulted the bill. He said it would duplicate efforts of the Strategic Planning Committee, a group of 22 citizens and building industry experts created nearly two years ago in response to a cry for more community involvement.

But Mrs. Pierno says that the SPC, on which she serves as the County Council's representative, hasn't moved fast enough.

In addition, she noted, the Development Advisory Committee meetings, though open to the public, are not adequately advertised. She charged that its members discourage ordinary citizens from attending and offering comments. Her bill would add a citizen, appointed by the County Council, to the committee.

"I believe very strongly in operating in an open forum," Mrs. Pierno told those who attended the standing-room only hearing.

Stan Kollar, of Norrisville, agreed. "This legislation does nothing more than open up dialogue," he said. "Citizens have virtually everything they own invested in their property. . . . This . . . simply presents a platform for people to express opinions."

The proposed legislation, which will be voted on by the council next month, would exempt industrial or business developments in the county's fast-track program, which allows a speedy permit process to certain ventures that are supposed to expand the county tax base and bring in jobs.

It also would not apply to proposed developments in agriculturally zoned districts.

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