Roads bill could leave development in fast lane

June 12, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

More than two years after the first phase of legislation to regulate growth in Harford County was passed, the final phase is making its way to the County Council for approval.

And in some eyes, particularly those of council members who were elected on a slow-growth platform and have less than five months left to play it out, it is far below expectations.

"I think this bill's a travesty as introduced," said council President Jeffrey D. Wilson. "It has the potential not only to not slow growth, but to promote growth."

At issue is the roads portion of the county's Adequate Public Facilities legislation, a three-part package of bills meant to control growth by ensuring that schools and other public facilities can handle development before the development is approved.

The first piece of legislation -- which allows Harford officials to reject new development in areas where schools would become over capacity by more than 20 percent within three years -- went into effect July 1, 1992.

Last summer, the council passed a bill that would require approval of water and sewerage capacity earlier in the planning and development process.

The third portion of the package, now before the council, would guarantee that affected roads are improved to handle the increase in traffic resulting from proposed residential and commercial subdivisions before the subdivisions could be built.

Slow-growth proponents say the bill, sponsored by County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and drafted by county planners, doesn't begin to meet their expectations.

"It's basically a watered-down intersection bill," said Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, a District C Democrat, who labeled the proposal "pro-developers."

County planners concede that the current bill, which addresses intersections, is only "half" of the ultimate roads legislation. An additional bill, dealing with roadway segments, will be drafted this fall, said William Carroll, the Harford planning director.

The measure now before the council is based on an "industrywide" rating system that measures the average vehicle delay at signaled intersections during peak hours, said Peter Gutwald, Harford's senior transportation planner.

The intersection service, called "LOS" for "level of service," is rated from A to F, with A indicating the least delay or the highest level of service, and F denoting the most delay or service that is "failing."

The bill would require a traffic impact study at signaled and unsignaled intersections that would be affected by each development.

The study's results would be used to predict the level of service after the development is completed.

If an affected intersection's level of service was predicted to fall below an acceptable level, developers would be required to make road improvements at that intersection or add another access route to bring the intersection's level of service up to par.

If the intersection already was overburdened and below the acceptable level, developers would have to improve the intersection to the level that existed before development started. A developer need only "mitigate conditions he creates," not pre-existing overgrowth, Mr. Gutwald said.

That's the stipulation that confounds some council members.

"It's not an Adequate Public Facilities bill if it allows people to keep on building even if an intersection is already failing," Mr. Wilson told county planners at a recent work session on the bill.

"People will say, 'Why did you let a new subdivision go in with 200 homes if the intersection is failing?' "

Similar sentiments were heard Tuesday night, when about 40 people attended a public hearing on the bill.

While many of them spoke in general opposition to further development, others expressed concern that certain roads in the county had reached their capacities.

Several people pointed out, as examples, the evening traffic backup on northbound Interstate 95 at the Route 24 exit and the congestion at intersections along Route 24.

"Development is good for the county, but it needs to be controlled," said John Polek of Laurel Valley. "The council needs to see what people are dealing with every day," he said.

Others at the hearing complained of too many residential developments off Route 24.

"You have to stand back and tell these people to wait," said Northridge resident Terry Lambdin. "Please slow it down."

Some council members expressed concern over part of the bill that would allow developers to pay the county a fee in lieu of making intersection improvements.

The proposed law states that, under certain conditions, a developer may, instead of making required road improvements, put 125 percent of the cost of those capital improvements into an escrow account with the county.

Those conditions include the presence of barriers, such as wetlands, or state or federal regulations, or unobtainable rights of way that would slow the approval process but which could be resolved, Mr. Gutwald said.

The escrow funds would have to be deposited before a building permit could be issued and the county could hold the money no more than 10 years, the bill states.

Mr. Wilson called the provision "a sellout to developers."

Mr. Gutwald said that provision shows the county's commitment to building road improvements into the capital budget.

"Ten years is almost the life cycle of a capital improvement program anyway," Mr. Gutwald said.

"The annual update of roads and services [required in the bill] will require the county to look at the situation and prioritize improvements."

But that's not enough of a commitment for Mrs. Pierno, who was elected on a slow-growth platform four years ago and is running for council president this year on the same principles.

"It took four years, and we have a watered-down bill with the

most important phase of it -- road segments -- missing," she said after Tuesday's public hearing. "If we don't do the road-segments bill very soon, it's going to be back to square one."

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