Growth curb on the ballot in Harford Charter measure seeks one-year ban on development

2nd try in '98 at limits

Officials warn of higher taxes, other effects

August 23, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

An article in Sunday's Maryland section incorrectly stated when Harford County residents will vote on a bill containing comprehensive rezoning decisions. The question will appear on the ballot of the Nov. 3 general election.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Placing growth at the heart of this year's election, Harford County residents are pressing for a one-year halt to development in the booming county.

A proposed charter amendment that would ban residential and commercial development is the strongest challenge to growth in the Baltimore region this election. Even with the vote months away, the issue has sparked a heated battle. County Council members and citizens have leveled sharp accusations at one another. Residents contend that elected officials are sabotaging their efforts to curb rapid growth.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"Residents are very upset over what has happened in Harford County in terms of growth," said Grace Hiter, a member of the Friends of Harford, which collected 13,194 signatures from registered voters to place the moratorium question on the Nov. 3 ballot.

"We are digging a hole so deep we are not going to be able to get out, and our adequate facilities are falling way behind our growth," she said.

The Board of Elections has 20 days from when the petitions were turned in to verify signatures.

Perhaps nowhere in the Baltimore region is growth more at the forefront of politics than in Harford. The sight of freshly turned earth at construction sites has become increasingly familiar throughout the county, and residents have complained loudly.

Several battles over land use have erupted, including a recent debate over a planned youth and senior center on 11 acres of woodland in Bel Air.

The proposed amendment marks the second time in the past year that citizens have rallied in an attempt to curb development through the polls. After a successful referendum drive, Harford residents will vote in the September primary to accept or reject comprehensive rezoning decisions passed by the council last year.

Ballot question disputed

But Friends of Harford, which monitors growth issues in the county, says the latest ballot question, as drafted by the County Council, leaves the impression that the ban is aimed squarely at average residents, who might want to do something as simple as build a deck, and would increase taxes.

"It's clear they are trying to dissuade the voters to vote for something that would be in their best interest," said Chris Cook, a friends member. "Everyone knows that no one likes to vote for something that says 'taxes,' and they deliberately included that word despite the fact it is not found in our petition."

"It's a typical egregious act that the council has done to blindside the citizens of Harford County," said Bob Dillon, a member of Friends of Harford. "In my opinion it constitutes fraud."

County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said the amendment would overburden county resources while hurting residents and businesses.

"I think it will have a negative impact on the future quality of life and cause increased costs to the taxpayers," said Rehrmann, who has commissioned an economic impact study of the amendment's possible effects. "We get our revenue growth from new construction and income tax, so clearly it will result in an increase in taxes."

Proposed restrictions

The citizens group has proposed an amendment that would:

Place a one-year moratorium on the approval of any new residential or commercial development.

Prevent development in an area where the school is at greater than 95 percent capacity.

Raise the standards for what constitutes overburdened roads and prevent development where there is inadequate police, fire, emergency medical response services, recreational facilities and open space.

Establish legal standing for citizens and community groups in land-use issues.

PTC Allow for the reimbursement of legal fees for community groups that successfully fight development cases.

After receiving the citizens' petition, the seven-member council condensed the proposed amendment into a ballot question stating that the amendment denies "property owners the right to make certain improvements to their property for one year."

Advice ignored

Ignoring the advice of the county attorneys, four of the seven council members also voted to include the phrase "requiring County to levy new fees and taxes for such expenditures," which refers to the reimbursement of legal fees incurred by those battling new development.

"I am not supporting the charter change, but I think that what my four colleagues did was misleading," said Havre de Grace Councilman Mitch Shank, who joined Councilwoman Susan J. Heselton in voting against the language while Councilman Robert Wagner abstained.

"I understand the frustration of the people, and my polls have shown that 87 percent of the people say there is too much development," Shank said. "But the problem is how do we correct the problems of the past and fix them fairly."

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