Roads, schools feeling area's growing pains

Population: But officials say the development boom is going as planned.

October 27, 2002|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Not so long ago, it took Art Helton about 30 minutes, 35 max, to drive from Harford County into Baltimore. Now, because of traffic, it takes him more than an hour.

The reason, he said, is that Harford County has not done an adequate job of planning for the explosive growth that is transforming the once-rural county.

Four years ago, Helton, a Democrat, ran for county executive on the theme of controlling growth. Now he is sounding the same message in his run for the state Senate.

Since 1990, the population in Harford County has grown 20 percent, from 182,132 to 218,590, according to the 2000 census. Much of that growth has been on the outskirts of Bel Air, along Route 24, which links Interstate 95 to the town.

Many of the new residents are from Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and they were attracted by the county's reasonable housing prices and rural character.

But the consequences of that growth have been predictable: Countywide, said Helton, there are 87 portable classrooms. Rush-hour crawls have become a fact of life. And longtime residents fret that their county is losing its small-town character. "We have not been able to provide the public services," Helton said.

But county and town officials note that the growth is taking place as planned, primarily within a "development envelope," as they call it, an area bounded by I-95 or U.S. 40, which are parallel, and Route 24.

"That's where growth can be efficiently and economically accommodated, and that's the whole idea of Smart Growth," said Joe Kocy, the county planning director, a reference to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's initiative to pursue growth in established communities.

County Executive James M. Harkins also sounded the Smart Growth note. "Our strategy has been to push the development to Route 40, which is consistent with Smart Growth strategy," he said. "It's the redevelopment of old areas, not paving over of new areas."

Harkins noted that most of the remaining 5,000 or so lots in that envelope cannot be built on because of wetland or other environmental issues. "The development envelope is about filled," he said.

Growth was a major issue in the county executive race that Harkins won four years ago, and Harkins said he has been working since then to preserve open space and to "play catch-up with the growth we have had in the past."

In his tenure, he argued, no zoning changes were approved to allow more construction. "The zoning we have was created before I came along and we've held to that," he said.

In the past four years, construction has taken place on about 7,500 acres, he said. But the county also worked to preserve more than 8,800 acres through state and county programs that purchase development rights from farmers.

For the first time in the history of the county, he said, more land has been set aside for preservation than has been lost to development. "It's always been the other way," he said.

Still, there's no denying that Harford County has changed from rural to suburban, especially in the southern end. "If you've been here for 10 years or more you've seen a lot of change," said David E. Carey, the mayor of Bel Air, which is at the epicenter of most of the growth.

Although the population of Bel Air has remained fairly stable, "all this growth has happened around us," he said. "In many ways, Bel Air has become a crossroads for the county."

The big problem with that is the traffic. Route 1, which travels through Bel Air, is of particular concern. "At rush hour in the afternoon, and on the weekends, it's often gridlock," he said.

Yet Carey says the quality of life is not eroding. "These are growing pains," he said.

Harkins, a seventh-generation resident of the county, remembers dirt roads and open fields where now there are houses and commercial developments.

But more of those areas are filled with houses than with commercial buildings, and that is creating a strain on the local tax base. New roads, schools and other amenities cost money, and residential development as a rule requires more services than it pays for.

For that reason, Harkins and the mayors of Harford County's municipalities are talking about bringing more manufacturing and technology jobs into the county.

"A lot of it is the economics of luring high-tech businesses or clean industrial ... to Harford County," said Carey.

The county has added 4,500 manufacturing and technology jobs in the past four years, Harkins said. "We're the only county in the state of Maryland to see an increase in manufacturing jobs last year," he said.

Those efforts have been particularly successful in Aberdeen, which has lured several prominent employers in the past dozen or so years, including a Frito-Lay manufacturing and distribution facility and a Saks Fifth Avenue office and distribution center.

Ripken Stadium, which opened this year, has also brought new traffic to the area.

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