Wagner seeks to avoid rezoning circus

Council president wants deadline for amendments, more access for public

August 14, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

County Council President Robert S. Wagner wants to make Harford's latest round of comprehensive rezoning more people-friendly.

Wagner remembers the last time the county conducted the process, 1997, all too well. The voting sessions ran until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., and the last-minute influx of amendments added to the confusion and made it nearly impossible for citizens, and even some council members, to know what was happening.

"It was a circus," said Judy Blomquist, president of Friends of Harford, a citizens organization that monitors growth issues. She recalled times when she was not certain that council members knew what they were voting on.

Councilwoman Veronica L. "Roni" Chenowith remembers a session running so late "that when we tried to find a place to eat breakfast, everything was closed."

"Voting at 2 or 3 in the morning doesn't make sense," Wagner said. "The public is not being well-served. People have to get up at 6 to go to their jobs. They can't keep these hours.

"We are going to try to avoid that this time," he added. "I've been through it before. I hope to correct some of the things we did wrong. I hope we can do a better job."

Wagner remembers about 150 amendments to the rezoning bill coming in on the last night of voting. "The public never got to see them. We got a lot of criticism for that."

To avoid a repeat, Wagner said he is looking at establishing a deadline for introducing amendments, perhaps a week before the council vote.

"We want things done above the table, in an open fashion," Wagner said. "We don't want to be making changes with no input from the public."

Also, in a move aimed at providing more integrity in the rezoning process, council members unanimously voted to pass a resolution that prohibits them from accepting campaign contributions until their work on the rezoning bill is complete.

County Executive David R. Craig took a similar step shortly after taking office last month.

In another move intended to add credibility to the process, Wagner said he also wants to alter the schedule to make sure the council's public hearings are not held in December. Traditionally, he said, government bodies take advantage of summer vacation and holidays to address issues they don't want to draw public attention to.

He said the council would likely hold four public meetings on rezoning, more if he feels it is necessary. He said no dates have been set, but they would likely be held in January at Aberdeen, Joppatowne and C. Milton Wright high schools and North Harford Middle School.

Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, who will be involved in the rezoning process for the first time, said he wants it to be "a very open" and "transparent" process.

He said that rezoning is one of the most important functions the council performs and encouraged citizens to get involved in the process.

Too often, he said, citizens complain only when they hear a bulldozer next to their house. "It's too late to complain then," he said. "All we can tell them at that time is to put in earplugs."

Before the council receives the bill and conducts hearings, the administration has scheduled four public meetings on its rezoning proposal.

Each session will be held at 7 p.m. County officials will be available an hour before the meetings to answer questions. Speakers will be required to sign in before 7 p.m. Each speaker will be limited to three minutes.

The meetings will be held Aug. 31 at Aberdeen High; Sept. 1 at Bel Air High; Sept. 7 at Joppatowne High; and Sept. 8 at North Harford Middle.

The administration's measure is expected to go to the council in November.

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