Rezoning fight reaches outlandish proportions

February 19, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Harford County Councilman Dion F. Guthrie said after Tuesday's council meeting - in which the council voted to approve a contentious rezoning package - that the county might be wise to look at rezoning more often than once every eight years.

And why not? This year's process provided ample theatrics, including barnyard animals parading out front of council chambers, a long-tenured council member changing her vote in what some said was an election-year ploy, and another council member wistfully recalling the good old days when politicians could settle a score by challenging someone to a duel.

Though the council nearly quadrupled the county planning and zoning department's recommendations for more business zoning - adding 176 more acres for new retail to the 24 acres sought by County Executive David R. Craig's administration - the consternation seemed to center around one issue: rezoning for increased density (or "upzoning") on Route 22.

Wary Churchville residents kicked things off by attending public forums clad in yellow shirts, urging the council to stick to the administration's recommendations. Their signs read, "Old MacDonald had a farm, E050 No!" - a reference to the number assigned to one of the parcels.

But in an amendment offered by Richard C. Slutzky and approved in a 4-3 vote, the property owner's request was granted. Slutzky, a Republican who represents Aberdeen and Churchville, called the area "blight" and expressed confidence that a shopping center set off from the road would be a more attractive alternative. Even without the change, the Ferrell family still had 36 acres of business zoning that it could use to build a strip mall right next to the road, he said.

Slutzky took plenty of heat - even Craig said the change was ill-advised and that any development of the area would benefit from more planning. But in a Feb. 10 editorial, a local newspaper, The Aegis, implied Slutzky had been influenced by developers' donations. An accompanying article noted that Slutzky had received $500 in campaign contributions from the Ferrells in August. (The Sun and The Aegis are owned by Tribune Co.)

"For reasons that are plainly, simply and solely about doing what's best for the Ferrell family and all the well-heeled developers, Slutzky betrayed the rest of the county," the editorial read. It also said "there was no reason - other than what's in Slutzky's campaign finance reports" for him to vote against a change to the county's adequate public facilities law.

County officials have publicly commented on news media reports in the past, but Slutzky took it a step further.

Reading from prepared notes at the close of Tuesday's meeting, Slutzky started out by mentioning Vice President Dick Cheney, who over the weekend had accidentally shot a companion while hunting quail. The last sitting vice president to shoot someone was Aaron Burr, Slutzky noted, over a question of honor with Alexander Hamilton.

"It's a good thing people can't duel over questions of honor anymore because if they could, there are a couple of editors who might want to be more careful," Slutzky said before excoriating The Aegis' editorial staff, whom he called "faceless cowards."

The remark brought to mind Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat, who after a contentious appearance at the Republican National Convention, was a guest on MSNBC's rapid-fire talk show Hardball with Chris Matthews and grew frustrated with the host's line of questioning.

After being interrupted several times and telling Matthews to "get out of my face," Miller said, "You know, I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel. Now that would be pretty good."

Don't expect a showdown at high noon on Main Street involving Slutzky; afterward, he said he was merely referencing a breakdown in respectful discourse. Ted Hendricks, executive editor of The Aegis, would not comment for this article.

Before the meeting, members of the activist group Friends of Harford gathered outside the council chambers and asked passers-by to honk if they wanted the county to stay rural. To drive home the point, they stood with candles alongside Katie, a horse belonging to Street resident Stephanie V. Stone, and a cage containing two chickens.

The book may not be closed on rezoning just yet. Talk of a referendum sounded serious enough to Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" Chenowith, a Republican from Fallston, that she cited it as the basis for changing her vote last week on the Ferrell family property amendment, a move that drew rebuke from Slutzky during his remarks.

After the last rezoning process in 1997, residents successfully petitioned to have voters decide whether to uphold that comprehensive rezoning process. It failed, as did an effort to impose a one-year moratorium on county development.

Representatives from Friends of Harford were waiting to see whether Craig would veto the bill, which he has 20 days to do, before making a decision on a referendum. After previously ruling out a veto, Craig said Thursday that he would not make a decision until meeting with his staff.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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