Possible loss of farms a concern

Requests to rezone land worry preservationists

Public input sought at hearings

September 11, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Like many residents, Judy Blomquist is concerned about the future of Harford County as a place to live. More specifically, she is concerned about the potential loss of farmland that provides the beautiful vistas, rolling fields of corn and open space that add to the quality of life.

That's why she has been paying close attention to the county's first comprehensive rezoning process since 1997.

"If all the requests to change the zoning of agriculture to residential or commercial development are approved, we would lose our agriculture industry," said Blomquist, president of Friends of Harford, a citizen organization that monitors growth issues. "It is just that simple."

The county Department of Planning and Zoning on Thursday concluded four days of public hearings on 325 properties that have requested zoning changes. The requests that have stirred the most response or have faced the most opposition concern farmland, said Peter Gutwald, manager of comprehensive planning for the department.

Gutwald said that much attention has been focused on the Fielder farm, 254 acres at Routes 136 and 543 in the Creswell section of the county, and the Magness farm, off Ring Factory Road near Bel Air.

Sandy Magness told zoning officials at a public hearing that it is becoming increasing difficult to farm the property because of other residential development in the neighborhood.

Blomquist said that if the zoning is changed from agriculture to residential at the Fielder farm, it would likely lead to an expansion of the county's development envelope.

She said the county should be looking at purchasing the Magness farm for use as a park.

Henry Holloway, owner of a farm in Darlington and a spokesman for a group he called Citizens for the Preservation of Agriculture, asked zoning officials at a public hearing held at Bel Air High School to deny all requests to change agriculture land to residential outside the development envelope.

He said residential development has a negative impact on a farmer's ability to farm.

Gutwald said there has also been considerable opposition to proposed zoning changes along a stretch of Route 22 in the Churchville area to allow additional commercial development.

Joan Morrissey Ward, former county planner and a Bel Air commissioner, is opposed to any increase of commercially zoned land in the county. She said there is already three times as much commercial land as the county needs.

Blomquist added: "There is no justification for zoning changes anywhere along Route 22. It's outside of the development envelope, and there are no services missing that people need. It already has grocery stores, drugstores, eateries and car dealerships."

She said boarded-up properties on Route 22 should be renovated before additional commercial zoning is approved.

"Route 22 is already congested," Blomquist said.

She said the county should "only give consideration to a zoning change if is for the better of the community, not for the better of the pocketbooks of landowners."

Despite the anticipated infusion of 5,000 new jobs at Aberdeen Proving Ground as a result of federal government's recent base closure and realignment decisions, Blomquist said Friends of Harford opposes any increase in land zoned residential.

"With our present zoning, we can take care of the BRAC additions," she said. "We should be looking at rebuilding and renovating some of the older houses in the county."

She said that if the push to develop farmland continues the way it has in the past 40 years, "we won't have any farms in the next 40 years."

Gutwald said the information from the public hearings would be taken into account with recommendations from the five-member citizens Planning Advisory Board in determining the zoning plan that is scheduled to go to the County Council the first week of November.

Council President Robert W. Wagner said he would hold four additional public hearings on proposed zoning changes in January, before the council makes its final decisions.

Councilman Robert G. Cassilly has been advising residents that rezoning is one of the most important things that county government does and encouraged them to participate in the process.

He warned residents that it would be too late once a bulldozer starts grading the property next door.

Cassilly said he was pleased with the turnout at the hearings and the residents' knowledge of proposed changes.

"I was delighted to see the people come out and that they were so well-prepared," he said. "It shows the process is working."

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