Council's U-turn on ban upsets residents

Carney intersection dropped from list that halts building

April 30, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN REPORTER

Margaret Bender's plans to sell part of the land behind her Carney home to a developer have been in limbo for a year. Now the 70-year-old widow might be able to move forward -- thanks to a 180-degree pivot by the Baltimore County Council from an election-year decision that one member now calls "rash."

The vote by the County Council on April 16 to effectively lift a ban on construction near the intersection of Joppa and Harford roads has stirred community fears about increased traffic. At least one residential project, calling for 16 houses, is being planned near the intersection.

Vincent J. Gardina, one of three council members who pushed for the building moratorium last year, now says his previous support for the ban was misguided.

Traffic evaluations should be left to engineers, he said, adding: "It should stay out of the legislative branch of government."

Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat, said he realized the mistake almost immediately after voting for the measure, and is considering legislation that would eliminate the council's role in rating traffic intersections.

Asked whether the vote last year had anything to do with his being up for re-election, Gardina paused, and then said, "Politics plays into every decision."

The vote last year was to add the Joppa and Harford crossroads to a list of "failing" intersections, overriding the county's engineers, who gave the intersection a passing grade, albeit barely. An "F" designation triggers a building moratorium in the area surrounding an intersection until traffic improves, typically through a road widening or other improvements.

County engineers recently produced their annual list of "failing intersections," and the Joppa and Harford crossroads was not included. The council approved the list this month by a 5-0 vote without adding the intersection to the list. Gardina was one of two council members absent from the vote, held during a rare day meeting, saying he could not take off work.

Meg O'Hare, president of the Carney Improvement Association, said residents are "tremendously upset" at the council's refusal to extend the moratorium. She questioned the council's logic in considering the crossroads to be failing one year and not failing the next.

"There have been no improvements to that intersection," O'Hare said. "It's still the same congested nightmare it's been for many years."

She said future development threatens to exacerbate the problem.

Randallstown-based Harvard Homes is planning to submit plans for 16 houses on about 5 1/2 acres on Harford Road just north of Summit Avenue, said a lawyer involved in the project.

Part of the parcel would come from land owned by Bender, whose son-in-law is a principal in Harvard Homes. Most of the land would come from her neighbor, who could not be reached for comment.

Bender said she has been looking to sell the back portion of her roughly 2 acres since her husband died three years ago. He used to grow blueberries and strawberries in the backyard. Now the yard is unkempt, and a tool shed is falling apart. She said she does not have the energy to work in the yard.

And she could use the money from a land sale to fix up her house, which was built in 1952, Bender said.

"I don't know what the big issue about this is," Bender said as she sat on a reclining chair in her living room recently. "No matter where you go, invariably we just see bigger and bigger homes being built. Everybody else is doing the same thing."

Stephen Weber, the county's chief traffic engineer, said the additional traffic caused by 16 homes near the intersection would not be felt.

On a typical weekday, 4,938 cars pass through the intersection during the peak hour of traffic, Weber said. The 16 homes might increase that number by 14, he said.

"It usually takes development much larger than that to have any noticeable impact," Weber said.

Weber said the Joppa-Harford crossroads is on a list of congested intersections that need improvements but that there are no immediate plans for work there because other intersections have more pressing needs.

While Harvard Homes can move project plans through the county's development review process, the developer cannot get building permits until the moratorium is lifted, which is expected to happen this summer after the council's vote takes effect.

Ruth Baisden, a community activist, said she wants the county to buy Bender's land and other parcels in the area and ensure that they remain open space.

"We thought that the council had heard us on traffic issues in our community," Baisden said. She added that, with the lifting of the moratorium, "We're definitely moving backwards in addressing traffic congestion at the intersection."

Part of the intersection lies in Gardina's district, and other parts lie in the district represented by Fullerton Democrat Joseph Bartenfelder. Both supported the moratorium last year.

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