Craig veto upset order

Rezoning leads to questions of county's course, leaders' motives


When David R. Craig was appointed county executive last summer, it came with the support of all but one County Council member: Robert S. Wagner.

Yet two weeks ago, Craig and Wagner, the council president, sat side by side in the executive conference room, regretting the outcome of a rezoning bill and chastising the council for what they said was a failure to sufficiently review its contents.

It was just one of several unlikely alliances and unexpected plot twists spawned by the contentious rezoning process, which has led politicians and other observers to raise questions about the county's direction as it negotiates a compromise over the next few weeks.

"We need leadership and lawmakers working together to achieve goals," said Eric E. McLauchlin, a land-use attorney who sits on a county advisory committee on the topic. "This began as a very conservative approach without collaboration between planners and the council, and it's now been vetoed as the solution to public dissatisfaction. That's a mistake."

In the past month, numerous participants in the process have been cast in unfamiliar roles. The lead character, Craig, has long been tagged as "pro-development" and was appointed by the seven-member council with the exception of Wagner. So it raised some eyebrows when he struck down the heavily amended rezoning bill - saying that it paved the way for too much development - and criticized the council along with Wagner.

Some observers say zoning is apolitical, and that the dispute is temporary. But others think there are underlying political considerations at work.

"Some [council members] react because of their commitment on the issue. Others do so for more political reasons, and it is a little hard to sort out," said Richard Norling, a member of the activist group Friends of Harford, which is supporting Craig's veto.

For his part, Craig said the veto was not because of politics or campaign contributions. Rather, the bill sent to the council for approval was the plan of choice from planning and zoning staff, which started the process before he took office in July.

"This department spent over a year constructing that plan," he said last month. "They [council members] spent two months deconstructing it."

In the end, the council added more than 50 amendments, quadrupling the amount of new business properties in the original bill and extending growth outside of the development envelope, he said.

The comprehensive rezoning process takes place every eight years, allowing property owners to seek changes in land use. With the county expecting a major population boom, Craig said, the amendments hindered the county's ability to plan for that growth.

Along with Wagner, Craig also claimed that the council members focused little on amendments outside their respective districts.

The council shot back. Lance C. Miller, a Republican from Darlington who has long supported Craig, told the Sun last week that the administration never sought input from the council and needed to "learn real quick" how the process works. He said Craig was "counting e-mails" from angry residents.

Craig's Democratic challenger in this fall's election, Ann C. Helton, said she would have handled the situation differently.

"I think there is an obligation on the part of the county executive, since it is his or her bill, to be proactive and not just plop it in the hopper," Helton said. "Zoning is not a partisan issue, but in this instance, he's got six people from his own party [on the council]. Why shouldn't they sit down and say, `Do we have any philosophy about this process that matches up, and can we agree on what we're not going to do as well?'"

Some of the traditional critics of development are satisfied, perhaps seeing a window of opportunity. Friends of Harford, the activist group, has applauded the veto and has offered its input as Craig and the council work on a compromise. Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat from Joppatowne, also supported the veto and said he will back the change in the zoning code expected to be offered this week.

Under the county's zoning code guidelines, Craig's veto unravels the past 15 months of planning. The rezoning process would have to be restarted from the beginning. Uncertainty over the next step factored heavily for the three council members who tried to override the veto last week.

"Your action tonight will pave the way for something that we have not seen before," Wagner told the council Tuesday.

Administration officials hope that a change in the zoning code will allow the county executive and council to negotiate a compromise using applications and testimony submitted during the current rezoning process.

"It's senseless to go through the whole process again if we're not going to add any more [zoning] requests," Guthrie said.

Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, a Republican from Aberdeen, said this week that landowners and lawyers have told him that the zoning change was likely to be challenged in court. One of his amendments - 35 acres known as the "Big M" property - is said to be first on the chopping block for the new bill.

McLauchlin, who was appointed by Craig to lead a county committee studying land use, said he's heard the same grumbling - "People are already talking about that," he said - but he's less concerned with the procedural change than the veto and the message it sends.

"We as a county have championed strong economic growth and not always supported those goals with strong land-use policies," he said. "In my opinion, it's folly to make planning decisions based on the desire to placate the no-growth sentiment."

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