Harford is scene of battle on growth Residents ask court to restore measure against development

September 27, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

As another courtroom showdown approaches this week over Harford County's anti-growth referendum, the fight -- and the underlying tensions that sparked it -- are far from over.

Squaring off are county officials who offer cold statistics they say show that growth has slowed and is under control, and anti-growth activists who argue heatedly that even that growth is too much.

"We didn't used to have traffic jams in Harford County, and that's not a matter of perception," said Christopher Cook, a member of The Friends of Harford, which will ask the Maryland Court of Appeals on Tuesday to restore the anti-growth referendum to the November ballot. It was struck down by a county judge last week.

Added Cook: "When a child has to put on a winter coat to go take a class in a portable, that is reality."

But county officials and developers view growth as healthy and inevitable, and say the county has worked to control the effect of growth, even as it slowed in recent years.

"What people are seeing now is a lot of these development

tracts that were approved years ago," said George Harrison, spokesman for Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann. "Then people drive out at 7: 30 a.m. to go to work in Baltimore, and everyone else is leaving to go to work too, and people start thinking, 'Too much growth.' "

Neither side denies that the population has increased in recent years, with an estimated 220,700 residents living in Harford by the end of this year, up from 173,730 in 1988.

Where once the landscape of Harford was composed of farmland and open space, big box stores and townhouses now abound. Route 24 is a retail feast, with an array of restaurants and shops.

"Traffic is worse, and we think there's too much residential development," said Deborah Wrobel, 39, who moved to Forest Hill with her husband, John, in 1983. "I work at the community college, and it used to take me about 12 minutes to get to work, and the other day it took me about 25."

County officials say that, for the most part, growth has been concentrated where the county intended: along a 53,000-acre development "envelope" running south of Interstate 95 and on each side of Route 24, from I-95 to the Forest Hill area.

That concentration, they say, has contributed to perception that growth is out of control.

"Just 10 years ago, when people would drive down Route 24 it still looked and felt like a drive in the country," said Arden Holdredge, director of Planning and Zoning for the county. "Now what they feel like is that they are driving through a city. They perceive it as a suburban artery."

County officials also say that Harford remains an attractive place for old and new residents alike.

"The generations who have been born here want to stay here," said Joanne Parrott, president of the County Council. "Among civilians and military personnel who are assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground, there is a tendency to want to retire here or maybe even return after their tours."

Slowing growth

Officials also cite statistics showing that the largest amount of growth took place in the 1980s and that development has slowed in recent years.

The number of residential building permits issued, for example, peaked at 3,128 in 1989, and has declined nearly every year since, to 1,672 last year.

In the past 20 years, school enrollment has increased by what officials say is a relatively small number -- less than 3,000 students in a school system that now has 36,552.

County officials also say that 24,000 acres of farmland have been placed in the agricultural preservation program since 1992, and say a moratorium on building in the Bel Air/Abingdon area is proof that attempts are being made to turn the tide of growth.

But anti-development forces look at those same moves and come to a dramatically different conclusion, arguing that even that amount of growth is harmful when concentrated in one area.

And they say county officials -- especially politicians during election years -- have been too sympathetic to the building industry.

"It's a fact in Harford County that money carries influence, and developers have a lot of money to spread around," said Grace Hiter, a member of The Friends of Harford. "They have day-to-day contact with the elected officials and are able to lobby them, and the average resident can't do that."

'Stop with the attacks'

These differing perceptions have sparked emotional accusations on both sides. Anti-growth activists say developers "buy" politicians to ensure their projects a smooth track. Developers say their opponents whip up hysteria among residents through misinformation.

John J. Gessner, a lawyer who represents several developers, said it is unfair for the building industry to be made into a scapegoat for Harford's growth problems. Compromise and communication -- not charter amendments -- are needed to fix some of the mistakes of the past, including poor planning, he said.

"None of my clients have said that there is not a situation that needs to be resolved, but we've got to put the emotional stuff aside, stop with the attacks and decide what are the key issues in the county that need to be addressed," he said.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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