Residents may get shield against 'stealth zoning'

June 19, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

Harford County residents could be protected against what Sharon Hurley of Hickory calls "stealth zoning" if the County Council adopts a bill requiring that affected property owners be notified of comprehensive rezoning proposals.

Mrs. Hurley said she was victimized by the county's first comprehensive zoning review in 1982, when her property was rezoned from agricultural to commercial-industrial.

It wasn't until years later, she said, that she discovered that her family's brick ranch home -- and eight similar houses along Route 543 near U.S. 1 -- had been "discreetly rezoned" without the residents' knowledge.

"The county was morally wrong to do this," she said at a public hearing Tuesday on the proposed legislation, which would amend procedures for comprehensive zoning reviews.

The bill before the council would require the county planning and zoning department to notify by mail the owner of a property and its adjacent neighbors that the county planned to rezone the land during a comprehensive zoning review.

In addition, the bill would require the county to post signs announcing public hearings for a property for which the owner is seeking rezoning.

Existing rules do not require county officials to notify property owners that their land or adjacent land is being rezoned if the changes are to be made during the comprehensive review process.

Comprehensive rezoning is a long process of re-examining and changing existing zoning throughout the county. As of 1988, the process -- which takes almost a year -- occurs every eight years.

During the last review, in 1989, more than 200 zoning changes were made, Stoney Fraley, chief of comprehensive planning, said. About 75 percent of the changes were sought by owners.

The reviews are advertised in newspapers and in public notices.

But general notices mean little to the average resident, who doesn't understand how planning and zoning works, said Councilwoman Theresa M. Pierno, the District C Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation.

Deborah Bowers, a farmland preservation advocate, said that after the 1989 rezoning, several people approached her with concern about zoning changes in Forest Hill.

"It was a radical change, and these people were really caught off guard," she told the council at the Tuesday hearing. "I think people need to learn about the comprehensive zoning process and participate in it."

Mrs. Hurley said she didn't realize the properties in her neighborhood had been rezoned until years later, when neighbors began discovering it. One of them told her after he purchased the house next door. Another found out when he applied for a building permit to add a porch to his home, she said.

"At first, I just thought they were in error, because I couldn't believe the county would rezone it without even telling us," she said.

The Hurley property sits between two similar homes on the north side of Route 543. Behind it is Wyndemede Industrial Park and across Route 543 is a mulching operation. Both were established after the Hurleys bought their house in 1968.

Today, the county's master plan places their home in the middle of an area designated for industrial development.

A preliminary plan for development recently submitted to the county by the Wyndemede Corporate Center shows the Hurley property and four other sites eventually wedged in a triangle of land between Route 543 on the south, the proposed new Route 543 on the north and the proposed extension of the U.S. 1 bypass on the west.

Mrs. Hurley said she's perplexed that in 1974, when the owner of the farmland behind her requested a zoning change from agricultural to industrial use, she and her neighbors were notified and attended a public hearing, but years later, when their own properties were rezoned, they were not informed.

County planner Dennis Sigler said requests for zoning reclassifications that are made between comprehensive reviews require a public hearing, posted signs and notification of any neighbors within 500 feet of the property's boundaries. But those requests are few and are difficult to get approved, he said.

It is more likely that changes will be made during comprehensive reviews, which don't require written notification, he said.

"It just wasn't the norm to inform people if the zoning change was an upgrade, because that was considered a positive thing," said Mr. Sigler, who was involved in the county's 1982 comprehensive zoning review.

He said a change from agricultural to commercial-industrial use is considered "positive" because the property value likely will increase.

He noted that the Hurleys and other homeowners in the neighborhood are paying property taxes at residential rates, and will as long as their properties are used as residences.

But Mrs. Hurley said "positive" depends on one's point of view and that the change in required setbacks on the Wyndemede property "has driven the industrial park right next to us."

In an agricultural zone, a 100-foot buffer is required between industry and neighboring residences. But in a commercial-industrial zone, the required buffer between a house and the industrial operation is only 15 feet, Mr. Sigler said.

Although he doesn't specifically remember the Route 543 properties, Mr. Sigler suggested that the county probably rezoned the residences in 1982 because they were "sandwiched between two commercial areas" and were on the master plan for future growth.

"But the master plan wasn't even in existence when we moved here," said Mrs. Hurley, who said six of her neighbors also have lived in their homes more than 25 years. The county adopted its first master plan in 1977.

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