Hearing set on county's revamped zoning code

Proposal updating standards on land use is expected to draw comments from critics

August 24, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

The Harford County Council will hold at least one public hearing next month on a proposed zoning code rewrite, an 800-page document that represents the first comprehensive effort to revamp land use standards in more than 25 years.

The council introduced the proposal Tuesday, shortly after members received the voluminous document. They set a hearing for 6 p.m. Sept. 16 at council chambers in Bel Air. If necessary, a second hearing will be scheduled Sept. 23, most likely at North Harford High School, officials said.

Members of a residents' group - Community Response to the Zoning Code Rewrite - expect to voice their opposition to many facets of the proposed code at the hearing. The group has gathered nearly 500 responses to the proposal, nearly all of them critical of the effort that has been two years in the making.

"Obviously, we want to progress into the 21st century," said Roman Ratych, a Fallston resident, who helped found the residents' group. "We need houses and businesses. What we are stressing is the importance of quality of life and keeping development within the development envelope."

The county created a development envelope concept as a planning tool. The envelope surrounds established communities that have the infrastructure, such as roads, schools and utilities, to support growth.

Response group members say they have not had a broad-enough voice in the rewrite, which, they say, does not reflect the will of Harford residents. Many comments posted on the group's Web site and forwarded to county planners and council members - without identifying the writers - deal with concerns about encroaching development that could spoil rural vistas.

A Bel Air resident wrote "How many Towson-Cockeysville-Timonium clones are necessary? Let the taxpayers who live in this county make growth decisions through referendum; the people who supposedly work for those same taxpayers apparently think they work for the developers. ... How about "developing" ways to improve the quality of life for current Harford Countians before simply adding more Harford Countians?"

Officials say the proposal was written to preserve farmland, direct growth to the development envelope and set stringent standards for land use. Before delivering the bill to the council, County Executive David R. Craig reaffirmed his 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.

"This is not a Democrat or Republican issue," he said. "But a quality-of-life issue about keeping in place what we call home."

Pete Gutwald, county director of planning, said every effort went into making the document readable to the average resident.

"We took a hard look at the whole thing as we set new standards for the 21st century," he said. "We have to balance opportunities for growth with needs of the environment and protecting sensitive areas of the community."

Craig said he realizes controversies will arise and restated his willingness to work with the council and community groups. The major area of contention is likely to be the transfer of development rights proposal, which allows owners of agricultural land to sell their development rights for construction in other more densely populated areas of the county, he said.

"The question will be where do those rights go?" Craig said. "No matter how hard we work on this issue, we know we will have to tweak it."

The transfer development rights issue "is the meatiest part and the most complicated aspect" of the code, said Councilman Chad Shrodes, a former county planner. Decisions on the code "will shape our county going into the future," he said.

"Basically, as we preserve farmland, we have to direct growth to other areas where growth is wanted, according to the master plan," Shrodes said.

The proposed code, which grew from 18 public work sessions and several open meetings, follows the county's 2004 master plan. The bill includes more than 200 recommendations, many of them wording changes, put forth by 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.

Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" Chenowith said the council is facing "a gargantuan task" with a mid-October deadline for adopting the code. She said she is pleased with the specific language throughout the proposal.

"It does not leave a great deal to interpretation," she said.

John Sauers, a Darlington resident who has closely followed the shaping of the code, said he wants the document to include the will of the electorate, population trends and all the information the county's planning staff can provide.

"This is not a Currier and Ives world," Sauers said. "We have to deal with economically sustainable concepts and land management."

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