County Council, developers fail to agree on intersection

June 16, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

At the intersection of Joppa and Harford roads, the rush-hour backup extends past the drug store, past the chiropractor's office, around the bend and nearly to the Firehouse Tavern.

A good 10 seconds after the light has turned green, the last of the 40 cars in the line still haven't moved. The light is red, again, before they can cross through and continue the homeward suburban commute.

"It's crazy - you can't get out any of the side streets" during rush hour, said Meg O'Hare, who has lived near the intersection for years. "You have to wait and wait and wait to get out."

The Joppa and Harford intersection, just outside the Baltimore Beltway in the Baltimore County community of Carney, gets an F. So says the County Council, which added the crossroads to a list of seven others across the county that get a failing grade - blocking construction in the immediate area until the traffic flow improves.

In the past decade, moratoriums have been imposed near at least 10 failing intersections in the county, some staying in place for years as the county tries to find money for road projects or waits for the state to improve them.

As the county continues to grow, residents have made clear they have grown tired of congested roads - and they're being heard.

The council imposed the moratorium at Joppa and Harford - where two residential projects are planned - even though the county's own engineers gave the crossroads a passing grade, albeit barely.

"There's got to be something done to improve" traffic flow at the intersection, said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina. "You can't just ignore it."

But the council's most recent use of the moratorium is being challenged by landowners and attorneys who say the council is violating the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of the law. Also, the deputy zoning commissioner has called for the county to take a serious look at its system for rating intersections.

The two development plans - one for 18 single-family houses, the other for 29 townhouses - would be blocked because of the moratorium.

"To stop the development without attempting to compensate the developer for his land is just fundamentally unconstitutional and unfair," said Benjamin Bronstein, an attorney for one of the developers attempting to put homes near the intersection.

The failing grade of the Joppa-Harford intersection has left the county government with something of a puzzle.

County law states that F-rated intersections should be improved to at least a D rating, using the Highway Capacity Manual. Under that standard, the intersection is already a D.

"We can't do anything," said Stephen Weber, the county's chief traffic engineer. "I've had one developer ask that question - `What are you going to do to get it improved to a D?' We said, `We don't have to do anything. It's already a D.'"

Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, one of three council members who urged the moratorium for the area, said his intention was to send the county a message that something needed to be done to improve conditions, even if the intersection is technically not an F.

"Some people do whatever they have to do to avoid" the intersection, said Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "That's what causes the cut-through traffic that goes through the residential neighborhoods in the surrounding community."

"I think when they come up with a plan to make improvements to it, [and] it starts getting under way to be implemented, then we can look at changing the designation," he added.

The eight intersections on this year's "failing" list are all clustered near the Beltway, including three on Falls Road. There are plans to widen roads at two of the crossings: Pulaski Highway and Middle River Road, and Harford Road and Putty Hill Avenue, which has been designated a failing road since 1997.

Doug Carroll, a Lutherville resident who has long complained publicly about traffic, said fixing one intersection might cause the failure of nearby intersections, and advocated looking at traffic issues on a wider scale.

He dismissed the notion that moratoriums infringe on property rights.

"They do not consider the individual who lives there who has made a huge investment there and is now seeing a huge decrease in their quality of life" because of increased traffic, Carroll said. "People do not have the right to maximize the value of their property if it destroys the community they're in."

Residents who oppose further growth near Joppa and Harford roads point out that the State Highway Administration, which uses a different rating system, gave the intersection an F.

State engineers rate state roads, including Harford Road, at least every two years to prioritize funding for projects. Their standard involves counting the number of vehicles that cross an intersection in a particular lane during a busy hour of the day.

The county's system involves counting how many times an hour cars are stuck at a particular intersection for more than one light cycle.

In a written opinion involving a project near Harford and Joppa roads, Deputy Zoning Commissioner John V. Murphy said, "The fact that the county and state have different intersection rating systems is very troubling ... and with all due respect needs to be corrected by legislation."

G. Scott Barhight, a land-use lawyer in Towson, said the council should change an intersection rating only if there are serious questions about the research that led to the designation.

"It sounds to me like the County Council made an error," he said, referring to the F designation of Harford and Joppa.

But O'Hare, who is president of the Carney Improvement Association, said she doesn't need a formula to know that the intersection is congested.

"Anybody that has eyes that has ever had to go to work either in the morning or when they're going home in the evening knows that it should be a failing intersection," O'Hare said.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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