Nine hours of testimony, spread over three weeks, wrapped up Wednesday evening in a long-running Harford County zoning appeals case for a 198-unit apartment complex planned in the Bel Air South area.

"Thanks to everyone for coming out and struggling through these three days of hearings," Zoning Hearing Examiner Robert Kahoe Jr. said as the third and final segment of testimony ended close to 9:45 p.m. Wednesday. The session had started at 6:30 p.m.

On the final night, lawyers for applicant Peak Management LLC of Timonium – which is seeking approval to build the apartment complex on 17.54 acres owned by the Evergreen Business Trust of Bel Air – and residents of the community surrounding the property presented arguments for and against approval of the zoning special exception being sought. Harford County zoning officials also testified.

The 198 garden apartments are slated to be built on land that is forested and is bounded by Route 24 at the east, Plumtree Road at the north and the Bel Air South Professional Center at the south. An unfinished section of Tollgate Road would be built on the western boundary if the project is approved, completing the last link of the county road between Route 924 in Abingdon and Bel Air.

The county approved an initial plan for apartments on the site in 1992, but the developers have since revised and presented a new plan for approval. They have also submitted a separate request for a zoning boundary to be adjusted to allow for the 198th unit to be built – density requirements in the current zoning areas would only allow for 197 units and a fraction of another unit to be built.

Residents of nearby Cypress Drive and neighboring subdivisions have expressed concerns about the impact on neighborhood traffic, surrounding wetlands, increased noise and light, and a lowering of property values if the apartments are rented to low-income tenants. There is another large rental apartment complex called Calvert's Walk just south of Bel Air South Parkway.

County planning officials have recommended denial of the applicants' plans, because they are not satisfied with the developer's proposals to mitigate traffic and environmental impacts.

Projects of the size slated for the Evergreen property – considered a Planned Residential Development under local zoning laws – ultimately must be approved by the Harford County Council, which also sits as the board of the appeals, unless there are challenges to the examiner's opinion from any of the parties involved.

Testimony before Kahoe – who will issue a written advisory opinion to the board of appeals/county council – began Feb. 13.

Evergreen's lawyer, Robert Lynch, of Bel Air, spent the first two sessions presenting the case for approval. Planners, engineers and architects hired by the developer to work on the project gave detailed testimony on their efforts accommodate traffic flow and minimize the environmental impact. Evergreen's property is under contract to be sold to Peak Management.

County officials, residents speak

Wednesday night was the opportunity for the county to present its recommendations on the application and for residents to weigh in. Harford County Zoning People's Counsel Brian Young called two county officials as witnesses.

Anthony McClune, deputy director of Planning and Zoning for Harford County, testified the project plans meet most requirements for a Planned Residential Development, but he said he and other county officials still have reservations about traffic and environmental impacts, even though the developer submitted traffic plans suggesting improvements to major intersections in the vicinity of the property to account for increased traffic flow.

"The department is concerned about traffic in the area, and at this point has not been supplied a traffic study that addresses our concerns, and therefore the department has recommended that the request be denied," McClune said.

McClune also expressed reservations about plans to build stormwater management facilities and a walking trail in a section of a county Natural Resources District buffer bordering the property.

He said regulations regarding activity in the NRD require "minimal soil disturbance and minimal removal of natural ground cover," even with "permitted uses."

"It's not a conventional development, and so there are specific guidelines above and beyond the general zoning code," McClune said, while being cross examined by Lynch.

Cheryl Banigan, chief of the Traffic & Transportation section at the Harford County Department of Public Works, said county staff and the developer's traffic engineers could not agree on improvements to major surrounding intersections, such as Plumtree Road and Route 24, or how to mitigate traffic flow on collector roads, such as Tollgate, and on other issues.

"I have concerns about the safety with the proposed improvements," she said.

Noise, traffic, other fears cited