Harford zoning referendum is likely to boost, not reduce, new development

January 11, 1998|By Elise Armacost

HARFORD COUNTY community activist Rommel Crabtree is no fan of development. Indeed, he is best known for waging a one-man war against paper signs directing traffic to new housing developments. Nonetheless, he's thoroughly disgusted at what's going on now in Harford, where efforts to control growth have taken a very bad turn.

False belief

A group of residents have gotten a referendum on the ballot in November that would overturn the County Council's recently passed comprehensive rezoning bill. It seems that those upset with the bill fear it will lead to more development, and its accompanying traffic and pollution, than if the existing zoning plan stayed in affect.

The truth is, growth won't stop if this referendum succeeds, and Harford County will be worse off. The rezoning bill actually holds the line on residential growth. It allows no net increase in new housing (developers had wanted 18,000 new units). This doesn't mean that building would stop; 26,000 units already approved have yet to be built, but will be, referendum or no referendum. But it means that under this new plan, there wouldn't be any more than 26,000. That's a big plus for the anti-development side.

Another plus -- now lost even if the referendum fails -- was the County Council's decision to rezone a key piece of property in the Creswell area from residential to agricultural. This property is the gateway to a part of the county coveted by developers.

Had there been no referendum drive, water and sewer service -- crucial for development -- could not have been extended there. As it is, the property remains residential, and if water and sewer are extended between now and the November election, the area seems destined for development.

Yes, the rezoning bill includes some changes that were justifiably contentious, most notably the conversion of several hundred acres in Fallston from agricultural to residential. Even there, however, the rezoning conforms to the county's long-range land-use plan, a sensible plan designed to prevent sprawl in the rural north by concentrating development in a growth area. Part of the Fallston land falls in the ''development envelope,'' the T-shaped zone from Bel Air south to the Interstate 95 corridor, where growth has been targeted for years; the rest has been designated for rural-residential use.

I am not sure what foes of this rezoning expect to gain. Some, I have no doubt, are intoxicated by the romantic notion of citizens fighting City Hall, and really believe they are doing the best thing for their county. Others, I suspect, have their own agendas. One RTC leader of the movement had sought to change zoning of 97 acres to allow more development, which seems contradictory to say the least. And there are political motivations at work -- the desire to use a volatile referendum to influence countywide elections.

But will killing the rezoning plan actually do what referendum supporters have been telling people it will do? The answer is no. If the referendum is approved, Harford faces a development nightmare. Comprehensive rezoning will not occur again until 2005; the old 1988-89 zoning law will continue in force. People who want their zoning changed will not wait until 2005. They will ask an administrative hearing officer for a reclassification, arguing that the character of the neighborhood has changed since they were last zoned. It will be difficult to deny them.

Angry residents

Harford's referendum is predicated on anger, not logic. It capitalizes partly on justifiable dissatisfaction with the ugliness and too-rapid pace of much development, mostly on the non-justifiable wish that the gates be closed the minute we move to a quiet street. Development related problems are real. But, in Harford and everywhere else, dealing with them is a more complicated matter than signing a petition or pulling a lever.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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