Group changes tactics on growth

Friends of Harford pushes knowledge, organization, calm communication

February 05, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

It was short, and it was sweet.

In the third hour of a public hearing Thursday night on rezoning, Friends of Harford President Judy Blomquist stepped up to the microphone to share her thoughts with the County Council before its vote this week on amendments.

In just a few minutes, she voiced concerns over the proposed changes on Churchville Road and around the Higher Education and Applied Technology Center, and pleaded for more land to be designated for parks and recreation.

"Listen to your constituents, and be conservative," Blomquist said.

Blomquist - and many others who have spoken up during the lengthy rezoning process - has been a player in a more sophisticated approach undertaken by many residents this year, in hopes that they can better connect with county leaders and achieve their objectives. The effort includes distributing tips on how to effectively communicate with county officials and a parcel-by-parcel review of each zoning request compiled in a booklet.

"Our effort was to educate the public so we're not just screaming, `I don't want it in my backyard,'" Blomquist said in an earlier interview. "We want to be a strong voice during the process."

The approach is a contrast to the last comprehensive rezoning go-around. Dissatisfied with results, disgruntled activists turned to a ballot referendum in 1997 to fight the changes and attempted to force a one-year moratorium on development.

Both measures failed, but they say they learned something: to approach the process like developers do. In the eight years since the last comprehensive rezoning, the advocates say they honed their persuasion skills.

"In 1997 there were plenty of citizens who had no idea how the process works. All they could do was yell and scream and wave their arms at the hearings," said Rich Norling, a board member with Friends of Harford. "This time most of the people understand at least part of the process, and they know what types of arguments to use to be effective."

Council President Robert S. Wagner, who along with District B representative Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith sat on the council during the last rezoning process, said he has been impressed with the way Friends of Harford has conveyed its message this time around.

"The book they put together was impressive, as impressive as what attorneys and clients have been bringing us," Wagner said. "It's certainly something we're looking at and putting in the mix."

"They've been very organized, very thorough, very professional in the way they've done things [this time]," he said.

Still, he wasn't sure how much effect it would have on the council.

"They made a lot of valid concerns known, but they want us to take an ultra-conservative approach," he said. "There's a certain amount of progression that comes with growth and some things that in [the county's recommendations] that make a lot of sense."

Friends of Harford divided interested citizens into groups by councilmanic district and had them conduct their own site evaluations. The result: a 60-page booklet of parcel-by-parcel recommendations, which are juxtaposed with those of the county planning and zoning department.

The booklet has been endorsed by the Greater Baltimore Group, a local chapter of the Sierra Club, and includes input from multiple community groups, including the Edgewood Community Council, the Greater Fallston Association and Concerned Citizens for Churchville.

The booklet recommends approval of 20 percent of the zoning requests, which Friends of Harford members say proves they're hardly "anti-development." The county seeks approval of 36 percent, resulting in 1,400 new housing units. That, said County Executive David R. Craig, would still be the least approved by any county executive in recent memory.

But the effort doesn't stop there, Norling said. Concerned residents are also requesting private meetings with council members, "just like the landowners and their lawyers do," he said.

In addition, they've been disseminating "tip sheets" that instruct members to remember their "ABC's" (accuracy, brevity and courtesy); to give sound reasons for opposing the issue (the zoning request is "spot zoning" or falls outside of the development envelope); to know the status of legislation and other amendments; and to communicate persistently with council members.

"Remember that your credibility is vital if you seek to change hearts and minds of elected officials," one of the sheets reads.

However, there were some theatrics. At Thursday's hearing, Aberdeen resident Jane Scocca berated the council for allowing a "Trojan horse" - the H.E.A.T. Center - to be wheeled in under a "zoning code on steroids." An 11-year-old instructed the council to "not forget the kids of Harford County." And the loudest ovation of the night was reserved for Blane Watson of Havre de Grace, who concluded his remarks by saying, "If I've offended anyone, I will not apologize, because I've been offended" by previous zoning changes and administrations.

But for the most part, residents kept their comments short and tempered, offering specific reasons why the changes they were opposing should be rejected.

Blomquist said they're hopeful the council will do the right thing in their eyes, but she said they haven't ruled out over avenues if the result is less than desirable.

"We don't intend to take the comprehensive rezoning bill to a referendum again, but the option is still ours," she said with a wink.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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