Harkins' signature likely on zoning bill

Measure's approval would begin 15-month re-evaluation of land

Process focuses on use and growth

October 10, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Harford County Executive James M. Harkins is expected to sign a rezoning bill, perhaps as early as this week, that could open the door to changing the face of the county.

His signature on the comprehensive rezoning bill approved Tuesday by the County Council would mark the beginning of a 15-month process allowing the county to re-examine land use and growth for the vast majority of land in the county.

The county code requires rezoning at least every eight years. It was last done in 1997. The process excludes the municipalities of Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Aberdeen.

"Next to the budget, comprehensive rezoning is the most important thing we do," Council President Robert S. Wagner said.

It could have an impact on the vast expanses of rural land that the county considers part of its agricultural heritage.

"These fields of pastures and crops could go to housing, retail or commercial operation," Wagner said.

"Rezoning could change communities by adding new retailing," he said. "It can change traffic flow, school attendance and put increased pressure on public services - police and the fire department."

In somewhat of a surprise move, Wagner broke with tradition and introduced the rezoning bill, something usually submitted by the county executive.

He denied that there was any political maneuvering on his part.

"It hit me a couple of weeks ago, early one Sunday morning, that it was time to start the process," Wagner said. "I counted on my fingers and noticed that we had to get it going soon or we wouldn't get it done before the next election" in November 2006.

He said he wanted the process completed so that if residents didn't like the final rezoning bill, they would have time to get signatures on a petition seeking a referendum in the next election.

Council's `obligation'

Wagner said it is the duty of the council to leave its mark on the county's zoning plan.

"I read it as our obligation," he said. "This is why the voters elected us. We came into office knowing full well that we had to do this."

He said the administration "was a little surprised that we started the process, but they are being supportive."

Wagner said he is hopeful that the rezoning process will proceed more smoothly than it did in 1997.

He said he would set guidelines on when amendments to the bill would need to be submitted to the council.

"We don't want a lot of last-minute amendments," he said. "We don't want a situation like we had in 1997 when we were working until 2 and 3 in the morning addressing a flurry of last-minute amendments."

Residents would welcome such a change, said Judy Blomquist, president of Friends of Harford, a grass-roots group that tracks growth issues in the county.

She said the late amendments, submitted on the day the bill was to be approved in 1997, "muddied the process" and made it difficult for residents to keep track of what was happening.

"If all properties are to get equal consideration, there should be a cutoff time for the introduction of amendments," she said.

Blomquist asked the council to create a map listing all properties considered for zoning changes. "All properties on the bill should be on the map with their present and requested zoning at least a month before final consideration," she said.

She said such a map would allow residents to know which properties were requesting zoning changes and give them time to "walk the properties" to determine how a change might affect a community.

Blomquist also urged council members to be conservative as they pass judgment on each request for a change in zoning. She said property owners and developers would be asking for more than they need to achieve the designation they desire.

Revised zoning laws

During the council meeting Tuesday, Councilman Robert G. Cassilly asked how the county's current rewriting of its zoning law might affect comprehensive rezoning.

J. Steven Kaii-Ziegler, the director of planning and zoning, said the first rewriting of zoning laws in 22 years was delayed by three to six months this year due to amendments to the county Master Plan bill.

He said it would make sense to have the new laws in place before moving ahead with comprehensive rezoning.

Although Kaii-Ziegler said he might have a better idea in the next two or three weeks about when the new zoning laws will be completed, Wagner expressed confidence that the council would have the information by the beginning of next month.

`Benefit of their input'

Cassilly said he expected the zoning laws to be technical and suggested that the council establish a volunteer committee to help members review and understand proposed changes.

"I'm not proposing that we spend one dime on this," he said. "I think there are people, who represent the developers as well as the land preservationists, who will give their time to give us the benefit of their input."

"This is extremely important business," Cassilly said, "and people need to have their voices heard, and they should be watching us like a hawk during this rezoning process.

"All too often, people come to us complaining about a project - a new shopping center or a housing development - that was approved five years ago."

"This is where those changes are made," he said of the rezoning process. "Now is the time to pay attention. It's too late once you hear the chainsaws cutting down trees and the bulldozers start rolling."

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