Master plan process to start

More public comment to be sought, officials say

`We want everybody's input'

Land use review meetings to begin Wednesday

Harford County

March 23, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Amid a backdrop of increasing community concerns about growth, Harford County is set this week to begin its master plan and land use review - which stands to shape the vision for the county's long-term growth.

The county reviews its master plan and land use every six years, as required by state law. The review is the precursor to comprehensive rezoning, a process that allows changes to the county's zoning law.

As the county starts the master plan and land use review this week, possibly the hottest issue likely to surface is whether the county should open the so-called development envelope.

Harford County's last round of land use review and comprehensive rezoning ended in 1998 at the polls, after disenchanted community activists mounted a petition drive to force a referendum on zoning changes, which they believed had been pushed through unfairly.

The county's land-review process works like this: First comes the master plan and land use review, which is supposed to lay the groundwork for what changes might be approved by the County Council during comprehensive rezoning. Next is the rezoning process, set to begin in summer of next year.

Anthony McClune, interim director of the Planning and Zoning Department, which oversees the process, said he "can't stress enough" how important it is for residents to voice their concerns before comprehensive rezoning begins next year. "We want everybody's input," he said. "It's a pretty hefty task to look at the entire county and try to balance the needs of the entire county - in one document."

He said planners would hold four public meetings in coming weeks to lay out the process, followed by interactive public workshops. Planners will then create a draft of the plan during the summer, and by fall they hope to share the draft with the public in roundtable discussions.

The master plan review does not include the community merely "as a ritual-type act," said Republican County Council President Robert S. Wagner. "I'm going into the process with an open mind. ... If there's something they truly disagree with, we can make changes to it."

Judy Blomquist, president of Friends of Harford, a grass-roots group that closely watches growth and other quality-of-life issues in the county, said, "We are cautious as we approach this process. We just want the public - not Friends of Harford - to be fully involved this time."

She said the last review ended in comprehensive rezoning with a last-minute flurry of changes that didn't mirror the goals of the master plan. "We felt the council had blindly accepted last-minute changes that even they didn't have time to research," she said. Friends of Harford collected the signatures to put a rejection of the changes to a referendum, which was defeated.

"We're convinced," she added, "that this council will do a better job."

Community groups, from farmers to local councils, have expressed concerns that the planning department is not working as closely with these groups in this review as it did six years ago.

But planners say they are holding broader public meetings - instead of community council meetings - to allow more people to be involved.

Land-use plan public meetings are scheduled from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for the following dates and locations:

Wednesday at Havre de Grace High School, 700 Congress Ave.

April 2 at North Harford High School, 211 Pylesville Road, Pylesville.

April 16 at Joppatowne High School, 555 Joppa Farm Road.

April 23 at Bel Air High School, 100 Heighe St.

Susan Stroud Davies of the Home Builders Association of Maryland said the development envelope outlined in the current master plan is two decades old. "Clearly there are development pressures within the development envelope," she said, "because what's left doesn't lend itself to development."

The planning department estimates that about 17,400 lots are left in the envelope, but Davies contends that many of those are undevelopable because of wetlands, steep slopes and other environmental concerns. She added that "there is a direct correlation" between the "aggressive behavior" in the northern end of the county in recent years of transferring development rights from farms to pool them in rural areas and the lack of viable development envelope space.

Many local activists disagree with that assessment and say a larger development envelope would visit crowding problems on new areas of the county.

Frank Hertsch, president of the Abingdon engineering company Morris and Ritchie Associates, said opening the envelope could also open the way to better planning than was used along the busy Route 24 corridor, where houses are placed near the road with little or no buffer.

He said transferred development rights could be used to create land in a new growth area for schools, transportation buffers and ball fields. He, and some others in the development community, hope to see an area along Route 543 called Stoney Forest considered for growth.

Stoney Forest has been mentioned by planners, politicians and developers for nearly a decade as a possible site for future development.

Wagner said he would have to see substantial justification for new growth areas such as Stoney Forest. "At best, all I can see is some amount of infill areas," where public facilities exist, he said.

Merrie Street, spokeswoman for County Executive James M. Harkins, said his main focus going into this process was public participation - and added that Harkins' "whole administration is built on the redevelopment of the U.S. 40 corridor and maintaining the integrity of the existing development envelope."

For information about the master plan and land use review, contact the Department of Planning and Zoning, 410- 638-3103.

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