Ballot sought on Harford rezoning bill Residents find fault with council measure, launch petition drive

Friday deadline looms

Development issues hotly debated as population grows

December 01, 1997|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

In Harford County, where development is hotly debated, a battle is raging that is pitting neighbor against neighbor and threatens to put the entire comprehensive rezoning process to a referendum.

Many have complained that the rezoning process -- completed when the County Council voted its approval in September and set to become law Friday -- is faulty and did not reflect residents' desires.

A group of residents has begun a petition drive to collect at least 5,392 signatures -- the 5 percent of the county's 107,839 registered voters needed to put the issue on the ballot in next September's primary election.

"Harford County is really under mounting pressure with all of this development," said Robert D. Dillon, one of the petition drive's organizers.

"People are angry, and they want to see something done about it."

Controversy has swirled around rezoning for months. It came to a head after Bill No. 97-55, which contains the final rezoning decisions, was passed by the council Sept. 29.

Comprehensive rezoning occurs every eight years in Harford and allows property owners to request a change for their land.

With a steadily growing population now estimated at more than 204,000, Harford has changed from a largely rural area to a community bustling with strip malls and housing developments. The growth has come with corresponding complaints of congested roads and schools and a diminished quality of life.

The debate over rezoning centers on 409 requests made to the county Department of Planning and Zoning after Harford instituted a land-use plan last year that included a "development envelope" earmarked for growth.

After requests are made, they are reviewed by community councils, a planning advisory board, planning and zoning staff, and the county executive before they are sent to the council for final approval in the comprehensive rezoning package.

Dillon and others -- including members of Friends of Harford, a community organization that examines policies and quality of life issues in the county -- have been collecting signatures outside local post offices.

"This is the citizens' right to take it to referendum, and we hope people in Harford really stop and examine what has happened here," Dillon said.

"It seems to me that the council was grappling with these issues right up until the last minute, and that says to me that there was not enough time for the rezoning to be truly comprehensive."

Not all agree

Not everyone agrees.

Rommel Crabtree, a former secretary for Friends of Harford -- and an opponent of signs used by developers to lure homebuyers -- has placed an advertisement in a local newspaper advising citizens: "Don't Buy the Lie."

Crabtree argues that those favoring a referendum are misrepresenting the issue and risking the chance that all rezoning decisions could be voted down.

"There were no new housing units in this bill, and that means we held the line on rezoning for eight more years," Crabtree said.

"If this bill goes to referendum next year, then it means the people could vote it into the trash can, and all the money that was spent and all of the work done by the community councils is wasted," he said.

Grace Hiter, a supporter of the referendum, said citizens attended public hearings held on rezoning and spoke out on several issues, only to be ignored by the council.

Lawyers said a factor

Hiter, whose request for a higher density of housing on 97 acres was denied, said citizens were at a disadvantage if they did not employ a lawyer to help them secure a zoning change.

"It should not be whoever has the highest-paid lawyer and gets in there and bends the council's ear gets the rezoning," Hiter said. "The process wasn't fair, and the people spoke out against it, but the council went ahead and did what they wanted anyway."

Councilman Mitch Shank of Havre de Grace rejected that claim and said he and his council colleagues worked hundreds of hours to review every request.

Council defended

"I feel that the council, for the vast majority of the issues, listened to the people," Shank said. "We passed a much more conservative bill than was sent over to us by the county executive and the Planning Advisory Board."

Years ago, a controversial shopping mall project was taken to referendum, but the entire process has never been taken to a vote. Organizers have until Friday, the day the comprehensive rezoning becomes law, to file a petition with the county election board.

"It is certainly the citizens' prerogative to go to referendum, but we believe the process was conducted fairly," said George Harrison, spokesman for Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

"With all the community input we had, this was probably the most comprehensive rezoning process we have had in the history of Harford County."

Pub Date: 12/01/97

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