Harford unveils zoning draft

Proposal protects farms, directs growth to areas now developed

August 20, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

After nearly two years of work, Harford County officials say they have drawn up a blueprint to guide growth for decades to come.

The 800-page document, introduced to the Harford County Council last night, is designed to preserve farmland, direct growth to established areas and set the standards of development. The zoning code bill includes the first substantial changes to land-use regulations in a quarter-century - or longer, if, as one official said, the 1982 rewrite was simply a rewording of a 1957 code.

"This is a momentous day in history and a work in progress," said County Executive David R. Craig, who submitted the bill to the council yesterday.

But members of the Community Response to the Zoning Code, a citizens group, said the proposed code will make it difficult for residents to get information. The group's Web site has nearly 500 responses from across the county, nearly all opposed to some aspect of the code. The group has forwarded those responses to county planners and the council.

The proposed code, which grew from 18 public work sessions and several open meetings, follows the county's 2004 master plan. It does not expand Harford's development envelope, where growth is directed to established communities with infrastructure, such as water and sewer, that would support more homes and businesses.

"Today, as we put forth this bill, I reaffirm my position on managing growth to ensure the best quality of life for the citizens of Harford County to enjoy the beauty, natural resources and environment for years to come," Craig said. "This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, but a quality-of-life issue about keeping in place what we call home."

Pete Gutwald, county director of planning, called the current code outdated and filled with conflicting language.

"We want to get it readable and understandable," he said.

But Roman Ratych, a Fallston resident who helped found the citizens group, said officials might have done just the opposite.

"They have narrowed the scope of citizen input and made major changes in citizens' ability to get information," he said. "It also limits our ability to appeal a zoning decision without going to the courts and forking over thousands of dollars."

The bill includes more than 200 recommendations, many of them wording changes, from the 25-member Comprehensive Zoning Code Work Group, a panel that included community and business leaders, county staff and residents who met frequently with council members. Four advisory boards - agricultural, environmental, historic preservation and planning - also commented on changes.

"We worked well together and compromised on many issues," said Marisa L. Willis, a Havre de Grace city planner and zoning group member. "For me, it was a real learning experience."

Her colleague on the panel, Frank Hertsch, president of an architectural company, said only about 10 percent of the document will be controversial.

"We had good guidance in our discussions, spent time on the substantive issues and engaged in debate," he said.

The draft deals with transfers of development rights from farm areas to the more populated centers in the county, an issue that is likely to generate strong debate. It deals with stream buffers, setbacks and reforestation, often focusing on minutiae the public find far too tedious, officials said.

Still, nearly 100 people, including Ratych, attended one of three public meetings on the proposal.

"They showed us pretty maps but did little to explain," Ratych said of the meetings. "No one learned from anyone else. This zoning code is for the citizens of Harford County, who, therefore, should have a significant role in its outcome."

The council plans at least two public hearings on the code next month, before voting on it in October.

"We want to work with community groups to incorporate what they want into this bill," said Councilman Chad Shrodes, who represents Harford's northern, mostly agricultural district. "We need to be progressive, but we also must protect our watersheds, preserve our ag land and heritage and grow in the right places."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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