Annexation considered in Harford Co.

Havre de Grace looks to develop 155 rural acres

Commercial hub planned

County Council to hold hearing on zoning change

January 15, 2001|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

More than 100 acres of pastoral land near Interstate 95 in Havre de Grace could become a commercial hub of restaurants and hotels, a prospect that alarms residents concerned about dwindling farmland in Harford County.

Havre de Grace wants to stretch its boundaries toward the interstate by annexing the 155 acres and changing its agricultural zoning to allow retail and office development. The land is east of I-95, south of Route 155 and west of the riverfront town.

"It will be very strict parcel use," said Mary Ann Lisanti, city manager of Havre de Grace. "One of the things we recognize is, we have to plan for the future growth of the city."

The County Council will hold a public hearing on the zoning change at 7:45 p.m. tomorrow in the council chambers at 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air.

Harford County Councilman Lance C. Miller, a Republican, says that, if approved, the zoning change will further erode the county's agricultural base, which has declined at a rate of about 2,000 acres a year. In 1990, Harford had 96,000 acres of farmland. Today, about 76,000 acres remain.

Miller, a farmer, is particularly concerned about a dairy farm along Route 155, which abuts the land to be annexed. "It is the most threatened farm in Harford County," he said. "I don't want the man to go out of business."

That man is 46-year-old David Keyes, who grew up on Mount Felix Farm. Grace Harbour, a community of single-family homes and townhouses, nips at the eastern border of the 200-acre farm.

Although Keyes rents the land, he has been tending his herd of about 220 Holsteins and Jerseys on the property since his father died in a car accident in 1971. His family has operated the farm since 1953.

Keyes' day begins at 4:30 a.m. with the first milking and, depending on the time of year, continues until dusk. There are few breaks in the routine.

"Farming is a business," Keyes said. "You just can't get in and out of it."

His landlord, Ann Green, 79, lives nearby in a historic villa known as Sion Hill. She has no plans to be wooed by developers.

"I see [the farm] continuing as is for now," she said. "I like it just the way it is."

But Miller worries that once the surrounding property is annexed and its value rises as city sewer and water lines are brought in, the Keyes farm will become a target of developers.

Keyes has begun to explore new farming opportunities to keep the business viable, including cheese-making.

"If I'm surrounded by people, I might as well try to find out what people need," he said.

No specific plans have been released for the 155-acre site - composed of nine parcels with various owners - except for a proposed road, which would provide access from Route 155 to Bulle Rock, one of the country's premiere golf courses. The links were named one of the 16 best public courses in North America by Golf Digest last year.

Eighty-two acres of the property to be annexed belong to Bulle Rock owner Ed Abel, who plans to build two more golf courses and a five-star resort - a mini-version of Greenbrier in West Virginia, he says - on 938 adjoining acres he owns.

"The area being annexed will lift the perception of that area," Abel said. "It's a good situation for the landowners, Havre de Grace and Harford County."

Abel thinks his project will not affect Mount Felix Farm. "People are jumping to the foolish conclusion that you can't have a farm next to a resort," he said.

The annexation proposal is expected to be introduced to the Havre de Grace City Council next month, Lisanti said. It does not need county approval, as the land-use change does.

Besides expanding the city's tax base, say Havre de Grace officials, the annexation will provide greater employment opportunities and higher-quality development at one of the city's gateways.

"We're pleased with it ... ," Lisanti said. "We support it. We believe it is the right thing to do."

The County Council can decide to vote on the zoning resolution tomorrow or delay a decision. If the zoning change is approved, the undeveloped land could be used in a variety of ways, including restaurants and hotels. A portion of the property would be designated for housing.

If the council does not back the change, Havre de Grace will have to wait five years to implement the zoning change, which would automatically take effect at that time.

The proposed change does not fit in with the county's master plan, said C. Pete Gutwald, manager of the county's Comprehensive Planning Division. The plan is scheduled to be updated next year.

Miller acknowledges that the county is positioned for growth.

"You can't stop it," he said. "You can harness it."

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