Time-tested system decides Harford zoning cases [Editorial]

The decision in this and other zoning cases rests with the seven county council members

Harford County has a time-tested system of reviewing zoning appeal requests and individual rezoning cases. So why change it?

That's a question we are asking now because the case involving Albert Bierman, who wants to establish a commercial mulching operation in a semi-rural neighborhood of Joppa, would probably be ripe for some County Council to just rewrite the zoning code to permit such activities on properties like Bierman's and be done with it.

While that has happened in some recent instances, the Bierman case is of the traditional variety that has followed a zoning appeal process that was established, albeit with some trial and error, by the first Harford County Council way back during the 1972-74 term.

The procedure in a nutshell works like this: A property owner files the necessary paperwork to rezone his or her property, or to seek permission for a use not specifically permitted under the zoning code.

The request is reviewed by the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning and then goes to a zoning hearing examiner, employed by the County Council, who holds a hearing, reviews facts in the case submitted by the applicant and any opponents and then, applying the law, renders an opinion on the applicant's request, approving or denying it or, in some instances, approving with conditions and/or modifications.

The zoning hearing examiner's opinion stands as final, unless one of the parties involved in the case, applicant or opponent or both, disagrees and wants changes to it. Then, a request for review and final argument is filed with the County Council, which by law is the county government's final authority on zoning matters.

The council can order the examiner's opinion to stand, reject it outright or request that it be modified. Once that has played out, the case is adjudicated at the county level, although the decision could still be appealed by the applicant or any opponents to the Harford County Circuit Court.

The Bierman case stands at the point where the examiner has issued an opinion, denying the applicant's requested use of his property, and the council recently held its hearing in its role as the Board of Appeals. At the conclusion of the hearing, council President Richard Slutzky said it would be a week or more before a final decision is rendered, which will be by a majority vote of the council.

People who live nearby on Heims Lane and Shirley Avenue are concerned the mulch operation could bring more noise and traffic to their community. They spoke at the hearing last summer before Chief Examiner Robert Kahoe, who in turn concluded the proposed mulching operation would have an adverse impact on the surrounding neighborhood — this despite Bierman's pledge to limit hours of operation and take other actions to mitigate its impact.

Robert Lynch, the lawyer representing Bierman, whose 125-acre property is in the 3400 block of Dorothy Avenue, said the chief examiner made factual errors in rendering his opinion and ignored expert witnesses for the applicant who testified there would not be an adverse impact and that the closest house is 1,000 feet from the proposed mulching operation.

The decision in this case rests with the seven County Council members. We're not presuming to tell the council how to decide it, but we are saying this is a good, fair and, above all, a transparent system in which the final decision makers are directly accountable to the voters of Harford County. It would be a disservice to the citizens of Harford County to do away with it.

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