Critics debate zoning veto

Council members question executive's move

Craig, Wagner say they want a deal

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

After the county executive's veto of the comprehensive rezoning bill last week, County Council members defended themselves against political claims that they didn't study amendments that did not affect their districts.

"During this entire process, not a single council member was asked if they had any concerns [pertaining to comprehensive rezoning]," said Councilman Lance C. Miller, a Republican from Darlington. "The administration needs to learn real quick that the county isn't run by the executive branch."

Sitting side by side at a Thursday press briefing, County Executive David R. Craig and County Council President Robert S. Wagner said they hoped to negotiate a compromise with the council on a new rezoning bill after members learn more about the amendments.

FOR THE RECORD - Articles in the Maryland section March 3 and in the Harford County section March 5 incorrectly stated that County Executive David R. Craig would seek a change to the county charter in an effort to resolve the dispute over the comprehensive rezoning law that he recently vetoed. In fact, Craig said he would seek revision of the county's zoning code.
Also, a text box that accompanied the article in the Harford section incorrectly described the timeline for that effort. A measure seeking changes to the zoning code was to be introduced after the County Council acted on the veto.
The Sun regrets the errors.

In a letter delivered to Wagner earlier in the day, Craig wrote that the council's public hearings were inadequate, and that he was "disappointed that there was no justification nor discussion between council members and the administration prior to the introduction of the 102 amendments."

"They concentrated on their own districts and didn't share information among themselves," Craig said during the briefing. "Each council member ... only was putting in amendments for what was in their district. But if they went back and looked, they might say, `Maybe we did go overboard.'"

Comments from Craig and Wagner angered some council members, who said the two were blaming the council because they didn't like the outcome.

Craig has said the amendments would create too many new businesses in an already glutted marketplace -- including some that were outside of the county's designated development envelope. Wagner was the lone dissenting vote when the council voted to adopt the amended bill.

"I don't need to see the light," said Miller. "I reviewed my amendments; I reviewed others. I personally went out and looked at numerous locations. That is what it is."

The criticism for a lack of research on the amendments has been the catalyst behind a bill proposed by Wagner that would have the county become the first in the state to switch back to at-large districts. Wagner has long opposed elections by districts.

In 2000, Harford voted to switch from at-large to in-district elections, a move that took effect two years later.

"The only people who are unhappy with the status quo are the ones who didn't get what they wanted," said Cecelia M. Stepp, a Republican councilwoman from Havre de Grace. "When they didn't get what they wanted ... they said, `Let's change the process.'

"The process has worked," she said. "This is the process that the people voted for. The people they voted for are the people who are doing this process."

Republican Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, the representative from Aberdeen, said he doesn't understand the flap over amendments he offered for tracts along Route 22, which Craig said are among his chief concerns with the rezoning bill.

The lightning rod for criticism thus far -- two properties spanning 35 acres known as the "Big M" property -- already has partial B3 zoning, the most intense zoning classification available, Slutzky said.

Ferrell Family LLC, the property's owners, are seeking additional B3 zoning around the site to move a planned shopping center back from the road, which Slutzky said would be a more aesthetically pleasing and efficient use of the property.

"I tried to do the best I could, knowing that something was going to get built either way," Slutzky said.

His amendments that granted the Ferrells B3 zoning passed by a slim margin, 4-3, though one of the dissenting council members has since mobilized for Iraq and will be unable to vote again. Council members will be able to add amendments to the new rezoning bill but Slutzky was noncommittal on whether he would try to make his case again.

"It would be premature to say I'm absolutely adamant, frozen in my position," he said. "I have to see what this process does in the end."

Observers said Craig's veto may be one of the most significant in the county's history. A veto of the 1989-1990 rezoning bill was overridden by the council.

Applauding the move was Friends of Harford, which has advocated for less intensive zoning changes and has threatened to attempt a referendum.

"For the sake of the county, we're willing to work for a compromise, but not if the County Council members are not willing to give up their little pet projects," said Judy Blomquist, the group's president. "Was the original bill good? It wasn't as bad, and it did try to follow the development envelope."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

What happens next

The county will seek to amend the county charter this week to avoid starting over with the rezoning process. Under current law, County Executive David R. Craig's veto effectively wipes out the zoning process and it would have to start over at the application stage. "We want to pick up on where we are today with the information we already have," said Deputy County Attorney Nancy L. Giorno.

The council will vote to uphold or override the veto, likely at its March 14 meeting. The council would need five votes to override the veto.

Craig has indicated that he would like to submit a new rezoning bill within two weeks. Like the first time, the council will be able to vote on amendments before approving the bill as a whole.

If voters are dissatisfied, they have the option of petitioning for a referendum. Friends of Harford said it has not ruled out that option, but would need to garner signatures from at least 5 percent of the county voters to put the issue on the fall ballot.

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