At the first of two public hearings on the county's zoning code rewrite, questions and concerns with a proposed transfer of development rights dominated the discussion. The hearing drew such a large crowd that officials will continue the session Tuesday evening at North Harford High School.
While county officials consider the sale of agricultural development rights to property owners in designated growth areas a giant step in land preservation, many residents fear it will create sprawl in rural enclaves, such as Fallston and Joppa.
"Maintaining our rural character is a priority," said Patrick Hess, a sixth-generation resident of Fallston and president of the county school board. "Now that we are the receiving area for TDRs [the transfer rights], we will become the developed area, while the north remains rural."
The code, which is undergoing its first rewrite in 25 years, is a tool for implementing the county's master plan, which delineates agricultural lands and includes provisions for TDRs, said Council President Billy Boniface.
Pete Gutwald, county director of planning, opened what became a nearly four-hour session with a detailed explanation of the proposed code, with particular emphasis on the TDR program.
"The idea is to establish alternatives for preserving ag areas as well as to give opportunities for growth in established areas," he said. "This is one more preservation instrument, and it is consistent with our land-use plan."
Zoning in the agricultural district allows one lot per 10 acres. In the five residential rural districts designated in the master plan, a developer could build one lot for every two acres if he was able to purchase and transfer development rights from a farmer. By purchasing TDRs, the owner of a 100-acre parcel could develop 50 lots. Without a TDR, that same property would yield only 10 lots. In some cases, properties in the rural districts may have to be rezoned before residential development can proceed, Gutwald said.
Ann C. Helton, president of the Harford Democratic Club, asked the council to remove the TDR proposal from the code to allow time to rework it. Under the proposal, the TDR program could promote more growth outside the county's established development envelope, an area surrounding established towns and communities with the infrastructure to support growth, she said.
"TDRs have long been missing from our arsenal of land-use tools," she said. "But, unfortunately, this measure is pitting one section of the county against another and could potentially expand development into areas not served by infrastructure."
Craig Ward, president of a Bel Air architectural company, said the council has a responsibility to properly manage growth.
"You have to decide where you want growth, what development will look like and what infrastructure it will need," he said. "You have to know where the next 10,000 houses will be and what will be needed to support them."
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti also said the code must ensure that growth is directed to areas with the roads, schools and utilities that residents will demand.
Others at the hearing expressed concerns over the code's wording for quality-of-life issues and environmental protections.
"This code provides well for economic benefits, but it comes up short on the environment," said Ron Henry, chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. "This is a golden opportunity for us not to do business as usual."
Many decried a resident's inability to appeal zoning decisions. Limiting appeals solely to property owners infringes on the rights of aggrieved neighbors, said Eileen Coffee of Aberdeen.
"The way it is now, only the person who wants to develop a property can question the zoning administrator," she said. "Local appeals are crucial to checks and balances. Everyone has the right to a written interpretation of government decisions that might harm their property."
Others called for stronger regulation on road signs, and many wanted to eliminate opportunities for split zoning.
"We desire to have the natural environment and beauty to be passed on to future generations," said Judy Blomquist, who spoke for the Community Response Group, which formed to gather local opinion.
Blomquist delivered a 60-page critique from the group as well as a list of favored provisions. She asked that the council read both "with the responsibility that you owe your constituents."
"Each page of the code will make a critical difference in the county," she said. "A high majority of our group disagreed with the code on many issues and theirs is a powerful statement."
The standing-room-only crowd waited for more than two hours Tuesday for the public comment phase of the hearing. They sat through Gutwald's presentation on the rewrite and a legislative council session. Many had apparently plowed through the 800-page draft.
More than 30 speakers had signed up to address the council, but several left before they were called to the dais. The second hearing is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at North Harford High School, 211 Pylesville Road.