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Harford council continues debating master plan amendments

The Harford County Council continued sifting through the proposed 2012 master plan last week, approving amendments that would set aesthetic guidelines for commercial projects, encourage redevelopment and protect specific watersheds, among other issues.

At their meeting Feb. 21, the council members also added amendments to address the issue of "substantial" truck traffic in the Dublin-Darlington community area and upgrade the Hickory crossroads of Routes 1, 23 and 543 from a "neighborhood center" to a "community center" because it has grown into a significant retail and commercial area.

Council President Billy Boniface supported that change, saying Route 543 and the Bel Air Bypass "is quickly becoming a large retail center... [where] people from northern Harford County come to shop."

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti also introduced six amendments, all of which were approved, that mentioned the need for additional recreational opportunities in the Bush River area, added a strategic growth plan created by the Forest Greens and Perryman Community Association, maintained the expanding development between Havre de Grace and Aberdeen and dealt with the Havre de Grace-Aberdeen community planning area, especially around I-95 in Havre de Grace.

"This interchange is planned to undergo some major changes," Lisanti said, mentioning the ongoing plans by Upper Chesapeake Health to build a campus there.

Boniface suggested holding two amendments about developing limits on noise and visual pollution and protecting ecosystems in natural resource districts by forbidding "major disturbances" like stormwater management facilities, sewage pumping stations and nonessential roads.

Planning and zoning director Pete Gutwald noted Harford has one of the strictest NRDs in the state.

"Giving flexibility to allow some of these things that will improve the amenities to the development process could actually have greater impacts to the environment as well," he said.

An amendment to evaluate alternatives to septic for wastewater treatment in the Churchville-Creswell area also got support from Boniface.

"We'll have to start thinking out of the box and I think it's important we recognize that," he said.

Councilman Jim McMahan told Gutwald the creation of design standards for "big box retail centers," to make them complement the existing community, is an important amendment.

"We really need to look at this in the future, really make it look not like a box," McMahan said.

Councilman Joe Woods continued to discuss how to address the property plans for the Center for the Arts in Abingdon in the master plan.

One proposed amendment would kill a paragraph describing the proposed property, calling it "an educational/cultural 'downtown' area for the Abingdon-Emmorton Community Area" and encouraging access to the site be from Tollgate Road, with a natural buffer to Route 24.

Councilman Dick Slutzky said: "I'm not sure I understand the benefit for doing this, unless this is codified... It's just a suggestion, a guidance, but there are [memorandums of understanding] that exist that provide us a certain amount of risk in accepting this amendment."

"I don't want to discuss those risks now because I don't want to make that an obvious public statement, but my council members have been part of that conversation," Slutzky said.

Woods said he is not sure how many people have seen the MOU "or understand the true intent of what that property would be used for."

"It seems this just has the council signing a master plan without knowing all the viewpoints," he said. "That causes me a lot of concern."

Councilman Dion Guthrie said he agreed with Woods.

"I don't know if we could hold this off …so we could get some more information," Guthrie said, using the opportunity to also criticize the arts center in general, which is estimated to cost upward of $60 million.

"You talk about some needs of the county, and with the economy the way it is, you're not going to be very popular, spending this kind of money," he said.

Gutwald replied he understands there will be some public-private partnerships.

Woods said: "For me, it's about property rights. Harford County doesn't own this property and I don't think it's right for Harford County to make changes on property it doesn't own without community input."

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti asked if the amendment could just be rephrased with "simple tweaking."

"There has to be some recognition that the county has actively pursued the site for that purpose," she said, adding she wants to hold the amendment.

Guthrie also took issue with Gutwald's opposition to an amendment rewriting the area plan for the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Area, including prohibiting additional solid waste facilities and rubblefills "in keeping with the recommendation of both the Joppa-Joppatowne Community Plan and the 2004 Master Plan."

The addition was an obvious reference to the former Plecker golf course the county recently bought with the intention of making it into a recycling transfer station, which caused outcry from the community.

"The administration does not support this amendment," Gutwald said to that.

Guthrie said: "This is the language that was in the plan by the county council in 2004 and voted unanimously by that council."

Gutwald replied: "Times have changed."

Woods asked if more community feedback could be incorporated into that amendment, explaining he thought that was the big concern for Joppa and Joppatowne.

"Would it be acceptable [to keep] the same language but adding a piece to the end of it... [to] just focus on some kind of community input as well?" Woods asked. "That was their big issue. They're really worried it's just going to be thrown at them, no input or nothing. I'll be honest, when I read this I missed that."

Bonus payment, proclamations

Also at the meeting the council passed bills approving a Maryland Department of the Environment consent agreement to close the Spencer Landfill-East Side and reimbursing part of Harford County Executive David Craig's bonus money to Harford County Public Schools.

Legislative liaison Nancy Giorno explained the school system reimbursement was part of a "continuing saga."

"We have come to more of an agreement with the powers that be, the Harford County Public Schools, and what this legislation simply does today is transfer about $1.58 million to the Harford County Public Schools system to reimburse them for the $1.58 million that they already paid to all of their eligible members and employees, other than the teachers," she said.

The bill giving bonus money to teachers was vetoed by the county executive in December because his office had no agreement with the Harford County Education Association teachers' union.

The council unanimously approved the Spencer Landfill closure.

Woods said he encouraged the public works department to use the site for open space in the future.

"Anytime we properly close a landfill, it's a good thing," he said.

Proclamations were also issued to Jarrettsville Nursery for its 50th year in operation, and the civil air patrol of the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary for assisting with storm damage.

Stockton Todd Holden was also recognized as a Harford Living Treasure.

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