Harford's first comprehensive rezoning since 1997 - a process that could change the face as well as the character of the county - is moving forward.
County officials will begin posting signs this week on the 327 properties seeking zoning changes.
Last week the county scheduled four public meetings to gather public input on the proposed changes. The first will be held Aug. 31 at Aberdeen High School.
"Pay attention," Councilman Robert G. Cassilly advised residents as government officials move to re-examine the county's land-use and growth policies for the next decade. "Without a doubt this is one of the most important things we do.
"It has the potential for changing the face of the county in the future - for better or for worse."
Cassilly said that zoning is the major way that the county seeks to control growth, "and growth is the No. 1 issue in this county. It affects our schools, our tax rate and the quality of our daily life."
Councilman Lance C. Miller said uncontrolled growth also threatens the county's agricultural heritage, the bulk of which is in his district in the northern part of the county. About a third or more of the rezoning requests are in his district, said Miller.
Newly appointed County Executive David R. Craig said he and planning and zoning staff would review the zoning change application over the next three months.
"Then all of the recommendation will go to the County Council in a single bill on Nov. 1," he said.
Addressing a concern of some residents, Craig said he has no plan to expand the county's current development envelope.
Craig, who has announced his intention to run for the county executive job in next year's election, issued an executive order Thursday prohibiting his campaign committee from accepting contributions until the rezoning process in completed early next year.
County code requires rezoning at least every eight years. The process excludes the municipalities of Bel Air, Havre de Grace and Aberdeen. The County Council makes the final decisions on rezoning requests.
"Next to the budget, comprehensive rezoning is the most important thing we do," said council President Robert S. Wagner.
He said it could have a significant impact on the vast expanses of rural land that the county considers part of its agricultural heritage. "These fields of pasture and crops could go to housing, retail or commercial operation."
Wagner pointed out that rezoning could change communities by adding retail businesses, changing traffic flow and school attendance and putting increased pressure on public services, including police and the fire departments.
Miller said some farmers are seeking to have small parcels of their land rezoned so they can add another business to their farm operation. Others, he said, are having their land rezoned from agricultural to residential to protect their farming operations.
"If they became surrounded by development to the point that it interferes with their farming, they could sell their land and buy a new farm someplace else," he said.
Miller said that changes in the county's adequate public facilities laws last year to limit housing development in districts with overcrowded schools have increased development pressure on properties, including farms.
He said there has also been a flurry of zoning change applications in the Whiteford area. He said property owners are seeking to change their zoning in hope of opening such businesses as hair salons, grocery stores and pizza shops to serve a big residential development complex to be built just across the border in Pennsylvania.
Cassilly encouraged the residents to keep on top of rezoning proposals in their communities, and to make their concerns known to the council.
Judy Blomquist agreed with Cassilly's advice.
"It's too late to do anything about it once the bulldozers show up next door," said the president of Friends of Harford, a citizens organization that monitors growth issues in the county.
Blomquist expressed concern that the county will use the rezoning process to expand the development envelope. "They tried to do that the last time," she said of the 1997 rezoning.
She fears that some of the agricultural property along Route 22 between Bel Air and Aberdeen could be rezoned to accommodate commercial businesses.
"Frankly," she said, "we need to keep agricultural land in the county. If we lose our farmland, we lose a big part of the quality of life in Harford County."
Public meetings about comprehensive rezoning, which begin at 7 p.m., will be held Aug. 31 at Aberdeen High School, Sept. 1 at Bel Air High School, Sept. 7 at Joppatowne High School and Sept. 8 at North Harford Middle School.