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Adequate public facilities law leaves a lot to be desired [Editorial]

Two projects in rather close proximity to each other are getting a lot of attention from the people who live near where they're proposed. While both have the potential to result in similar kinds of traffic problems, one is in keeping with laws already on the books, while the other will require a change in the law before it can be built.

Specifically, plans to build an apartment complex of 285 units on 17.7 acres near the historic Mt. Soma farm at the southern end of the Bel Air Bypass are within what zoning allows on the land in question. It's a short drive south on Route 1 to land near the Aumar Village shopping center where an athletic complex is proposed on land that's zoned for agricultural uses. An act of the Harford County Council to make athletic complexes allowed in agricultural zones would be required to allow this project to move ahead.

Both face opposition in part because neighbors fear increases in traffic generated by the projects will add to the problems of an already congested area. Those fears are well-founded.

While the Mt. Soma apartments appear to have the better claim on being within the letter of the law, there's a good chance both projects will end up being built. If not, it stands to reason something that generates a lot of traffic will end up at either location.

This reality reflects a serious problem with land use planning in Harford County, namely that construction is allowed to move ahead in places where development already has put a strain on public infrastructure.

Like many suburban counties, Harford County has an adequate public facilities law that, at least in theory, limits or stops building when public infrastructure has met or gone beyond its capacity. In some instances, the law has had effects, notably in the area of residential construction in places that are served by schools that are overcrowded. Unfortunately, the effect has been the county has been willing to spend money to build new schools to accommodate new development even as there are empty desks elsewhere in the county.

When it comes to traffic, the effectiveness of the adequate public facilities law has been less noticeable, thanks to a byzantine system of evaluating roadways. On state roads, an A through F grading scale, like what's used in school, is in effect. Intersections and roadways are graded, and those grades vary at different times of day. A crossroads that gets a D at rush hour may get an A at midnight and an overall grade of C- or D+; moreover, just like in school, a D is a passing grade, though not a coveted one. There's more to the grading system than that, but the short version will suffice here. It's also important to note that there's also a grading system for intersections and roads in the county highway network, and there are plenty of places where state and county roads intersect.

Is a traffic light necessary at a particular intersection? A left turn lane? A right turn ramp? If you're the one who's going to end up paying, you're going to make the argument that for 21 hours out of 24, there's no problem on a particular road. Commuters are apt to argue those other three hours are key.

To date, adequate public facilities laws have had little discernible effect on development in congested areas, and they probably won't any time soon. The reason is simple: nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. If there are a lot of people frequenting a particular area, that area is a natural target for people in business looking to attract customers.

The problem, of course, is the one credited to Yogi Berra, who is credited with saying of a busy place, "No one goes there anymore because it's too crowded."

The bottom line with the flaw in local land use policy as it relates to roads and other infrastructure becoming overcrowded is that the problem is a tough one to fix, and fixing it could end up creating a new set of problems. The school crowding example comes into play here, as new school construction has resulted in the county's taxpayers having paid for several thousand empty desks (figuratively speaking) so residential construction could continue in highly coveted areas.

As the Aumar Village sports complex and the Mt. Soma apartments move through the approval process, it will be important to do something to deal with traffic problems in the area. The trick will be doing something that is effective, but not exorbitant.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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