A little more than a week after the county released a draft of Harford's land use plan for the next decade, some watching the growth review process say they wonder whether the nearly 240-page document can address development issues seriously.
"It certainly sounds good," said former community planner Joan Morrissey Ward. "My problem with the master plan is that the last master plan sounded good, too. It's whether it's implemented."
Among the key issues outlined in the plan:
How many buildable units remain inside the county's "development envelope," or designated growth area, and in rural areas.
The phaseout of family conveyances and revision of other development rights allowed on agriculturally zoned land.
Holding the development envelope boundaries, except for annexing in the Havre de Grace and Aberdeen areas.
Protecting wellheads, primarily in Perryman around the county's wells near Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Amending the zoning code to allow for greater citizen participation.
The plan includes few details about how to address many of these items.
That vagueness is intentional, said Peter Gutwald, manager of comprehensive planning in the Department of Planning and Zoning, because it anticipates the zoning code revision.
The state requires counties to review land use every six years, but has little say in how the plans are written or implemented. In Harford, the plan is part of a three-step land review process, which includes comprehensive rezoning and, for the first time in two decades, a zoning code revision.
The county's Draft 2004 Master Plan and Land Use Element Plan, as it is officially called, ticks off topics debated in the county in the past several years, including wellhead protection, rural area development and greater citizen input in the development process.
For citizens concerned with the pace of growth, the plan encompasses many of their concerns - primarily because it is framed around comments tabulated from public meetings and workshops held earlier this year.
But for some members of the development community, the plan's failure to designate a new growth area or to reassess growth in areas - such as the western county's Route 152 corridor - that have become more rural residential than agricultural is disappointing. Frank Hertsch, president of Morris & Ritchie Associates, said the plan is "slanted" and "comes across as a growth-control plan."
The county's decision to overhaul the zoning code has substantially pushed back the timetable for the entire process. Gutwald said last week that the department now expects comprehensive rezoning to begin around January 2005 - instead of next summer.
That time lag is disturbing to County Council President Robert S. Wagner. He said the January 2005 start is half a year behind schedule. "Add to that there's going to be something that slows it down, and all of a sudden, you're 12 months out of sync," he said.
With elections coming up in 2006, he said, officials will be distracted from devoting their full attention to land use matters. "It's not done right when it's done in an election cycle," Wagner said.
The plan assesses developable units inside the development envelope and in rural areas. Gutwald said the rural assessment was a "huge work effort" and the first in-depth look at those areas since 1993. The number of units inside the development envelope is about 18,672, while the number in rural areas is 12,636.
Hertsch said the assessment in the development envelope is unrealistic because some tracts of land aren't for sale, and owners aren't interested in developing.
"There is a substantial shortage of buildable land," he said, maintaining the view held by many in the county's development industry.
Gutwald said that, based on an average of 1,300 building permits issued a year, the county has plenty of inventory for the next decade - or longer.
But the number of units outside the development envelope is troubling, said Morrissey Ward, a Bel Air resident and town commissioner who worked for the planning department before resigning to run unsuccessfully for County Council in 2002.
"There's still plenty of room for sprawl in the rural areas, and that's what worries me," she said.
The plan talks about two key elements in rural areas that could influence that growth, the phasing out of family conveyances and revision of transferred development rights on agricultural properties.
Gutwald said the 2007 sunset on family conveyances, which allow property owners to allot part of their land to family members - and increase the development density on their properties beyond one home for 10 acres - is reasonable and gives interested landowners time to use them.