Developers ask Harford for farmland Frustrated residents urge officials to deny growth on 12,000 acres

18,000 more homes possible

Master plan allows for modest expansion in disputed district

June 16, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Developers are asking Harford County officials to set aside 12,000 acres of mostly farmland to accommodate home construction -- the first major challenge to the county's designated high-growth district in nearly 20 years.

But residents fed up with congested roads and crowded schools want to hold the line on suburban sprawl. They're urging officials to reject the developers' request, which could add 18,000 homes in the south-central part of the county.

The conflicting visions of Harford's future -- a major issue in the growth-sensitive community -- will be played out over the next several weeks, as the county crafts a plan to guide development during the next six years.

And decisions not only will affect Harford, but also could reverberate throughout a metropolitan area that has struggled to cope with shifting populations.

Harford has been one of the main recipients of residents fleeing the urban ills of Baltimore and Baltimore County. During the past 25 years, the number of Harford households has jumped from 32,000 to 73,600, turning farms into subdivisions and country lanes into jammed roads. One farmer summed it up a few years ago when he posted a sign at a doomed woodland: "Going, going, gone."

"You can come home in one afternoon and feel lost," says Jan Stinchcomb, an Abingdon resident who watched as the farms around her home were gobbled up by townhouses. "From the residents' viewpoint, too much has happened too quickly."

She was among the dozens of residents, business leaders and environmentalists who worked to update the master plan. With help from county planners, community councils crafted a conservative document that permits only modest expansion of the T-shaped growth district where 85 percent of the county's 210,000 residents live.

Maintaining the boundaries of that district, Stinchcomb and others say, gives the county time to catch up with providing the schools, roads, libraries and parks needed by existing communities.

But the Harford chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland argues that the vision expressed in the master plan is too shortsighted.

While conceding that the development district, which straddles U.S. 40 and Route 24, has become too crowded, the builders' strategy is not to halt growth but to expand the district.

They're urging the County Council -- which will vote on the master plan July 9 -- to designate a wide swath of agricultural land between Bel Air and Aberdeen for building single-family detached houses for the next 20 to 30 years.

Frank F. Hertsch, a land use lawyer and association member, says the targeted area around Stoney Forest state park would allow the county to plan for growth more wisely by making provisions for recreational facilities and open space before houses are built.

Arden Holdredge, director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, agrees that the county eventually will have to expand the growth area served by public water and sewer.

But she says the proposed master plan allows for plenty of growth -- up to 26,900 more houses during the next 18 years -- giving the county time to designate a new development district when it updates the plan again in 2002.

The builders dispute those projections. They say the county has been too conservative in its growth estimates and too many of the planned units are condominiums that are unlikely to be built. And builders say they can't depend on a designated growth area between Havre de Grace and Aberdeen because construction there would depend upon the municipalities updating sewer and water systems.

The proposed master plan's only expansion of the development district would be for 500 additional acres of industrial land in Perryman and 300 additional acres for as many as 406 high-priced houses near the Todd Lakes development outside Bel Air.

Robert Santoni, a Joppatowne resident who worked on the master plan, opposes even that addition. "Our [community] council wanted to see no increase in the development envelope at all," Santoni says. "We're not against development, but we think it's time to slow down."

He says the proposed master plan gives Harford the chance to seize control of its destiny in a way other counties haven't. He points to Baltimore County, which, after years of concentrating resources on growth areas in White Marsh and Owings Mills, is struggling to repair roads, alleys and sidewalks in older communities.

The decisions that Harford officials make in the coming weeks could affect other areas, say officials in Baltimore County, which has lost thousands of residents to new subdivisions in Harford.

"They could hold the line and new investment could go into Baltimore County," says P. David Fields, director of the Baltimore County Office of Community Conservation, which is trying to revive the older suburbs. "If Carroll County does the same, people will be looking to the older neighborhoods."

On the other hand, Fields says, Harford may control growth so well that it becomes a magnet to those seeking well-planned communities. "You'll probably have a little of both."

Still, figuring out the whims of home buyers is difficult, notes Wayne H. Feuerborn, a Baltimore County planner who is overseeing preparation for the county's next master plan. Even if Harford maintains the existing boundaries of its growth district, he says, it has enough land to lure area home buyers for several more years.

Stinchcomb agrees that it may be a long time before Harford residents get any relief from growing pains.

"There is no way this county is not going to continue to see growth," she says. "We're just saying, let's do it correctly."

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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