State officials recommend changes to Aberdeen's development rules

Three state officials have recommended amending Aberdeen's development regulations to include form-based codes, explaining how this change would help proposed transit-oriented development around the MARC train station by giving developers a more graphic basis to plan their projects.

"One of the key things once you have a master plan in place is having the right development regulations that will enable it," Stacey Dahlstrom from the Office of Planning and Capital Programming in the Maryland Department of Transportation said. "One of the best ways and tools that a local government can use is what we call form-based codes."

Speaking to members of the Aberdeen Planning Commission during their most recent monthly meeting April 10, Dahlstrom said these codes would include a series of text amendments and accompanying graphics.

"When developers come before you and say 'I have this proposal,' instead of just reading the text, you actually will have graphics to help you understand and demonstrate to the development community and the project landowners and the public what it is you want and how it works," Dahlstrom said.

One of the benefits of form-based codes is "you tell people up front what you want," Pat Keller, deputy chief administrative officer of Statewide Service Development at the Maryland Transit Administration said.

"You all pick out what you think Aberdeen should look like, what you think it should feel like, how it should act, you put it in a form-based code, your work is really done because at that point you will basically get what you want," Keller said. "In other words, you won't have to struggle with somebody.

"With a form-based code, it's all laid out. The business says, 'Oh, I know what you want here, I know what Aberdeen wants, I know how you want this downtown to look,' " Keller added.

Public involvement praised

Keller explained the MTA's role in developing the area around the train station as wanting to see the station's parking lots become an integral part of the community. Keller commended the planning commission for reaching out to the community.

"I applaud you for [reaching out]," Keller said. "You just don't see that very often around the state, where people are more concerned about what happens on a particular site than what happens to their community."

David Dahlstrom, Upper Eastern Shore regional planner from the Maryland Department of Planning, said the form-based code would preserve Aberdeen's street layout and neighborhoods.

"What the form-based code tries to do is tries to keep the street network that you already have in place that's been there since the town began. You want to keep those elements, and then you define each one of those elements, and that's what the regulating plan tries to do," he said.

David Dahlstrom added a form-based code is "really no different than a regular zoning code, except there are graphic illustrations that really draw what the language says."

"Think of it as a zoning code with pictures," he explained. "Sometimes the English language can be interpreted many ways, and so I might think it means this, you might think it means that, but if you draw it in a picture, there's a lot more certainty in what that language says."

Commission member Mark Schlottman expressed concern about dealing with bureaucracy regarding Amtrak and an overpass near the train station. Stacey Dahlstrom replied that the Department of Transportation had already reached out to Amtrak, which had responded positively.

Schlottman replied that developers would be reluctant to come up with anything if there was nothing to show regarding progress with the station and overpass.

"Until we do something with the overpass and the train station and at least be able to show Joe or Jane Developer that we're doing something here, no one's going to touch that because of that overpass and the decrepit shape of the station," Schlottman said.

Planning and Community Development Director Phyllis Grover then interjected, saying that state agencies, Harford County government and Aberdeen Proving Ground are all on board.

"I've been working on the train station for up to 15 years," Grover said. "I think we're closer now than we've ever been."

"Now, do we have the $36 million to do the underpass? Not at this time," Grover said. "But I think it really is important for all of us in this room, because you have all of the [Aberdeen City Council members] here this evening."

"It's really important that you push this with our delegation [to the Maryland General Assembly] as well," Grover added, stressing that state legislators need to hear how important redevelopment in downtown Aberdeen is.

Planning Commission Chairman Joe Swisher asked about a timeframe and estimated cost for the redevelopment. Stacey Dahlstrom said that an estimated timeframe was about 20 to 25 years and that the state agencies were mainly assisting with form codes and do not have an estimated cost for the entire project, only the estimated $36 million for a pedestrian underpass.

Commission member Amy Snyder asked about any plans for mass transit going from the station to Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Stacey Dahlstrom responded that Chesapeake Science and Security Corridor isusing a federal grant to operate a shuttle from the station to APG, and noted that coordination would be necessary to integrate this into a new project.

The planning commission will have a public workshop on May 15 from 5 to 7 p.m., followed by a regular meeting at 7.

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