Harford County Council passes bills changing zoning for mixed office, Magnolia districts

The Aegis

The Harford County Council passed a series of zoning related bills this week, some which had drawn criticism from the public and one member during earlier public hearings.

The council also passed a bill to extend the county’s 20 percent property tax credit program to surviving spouses of military veterans.

Some residents criticized the zoning bills, all of which were sponsored by the county administration, as nothing more than giveaways to developers. The bills were passed at Tuesday night’s legislative session.

Mixed Office zone

One covers changes to zoning code language that applies to mixed-office projects, which include commercial and residential development clustered around highway interchanges to promote local job growth.

The council passed that bill unanimously, without discussion. The county administration put the bill forth, it said, as a way to clear up inconsistencies in the mixed office section of the zoning code, which had been changed several times over the years.

This is the third time in eight years — spanning two county administrations — that changes have been proposed to this section of the zoning code. The previous two times were at the behest of developers of a large tract of land near Interstate 95 and Route 543 in the Creswell/Bel Air area.

Proposed changes this time include tweaks to the wording regarding a 75 percent limit on impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, in the project area, a requirement that at least 15 percent of the project be uses other than retail trade and residential, plus a change stating that no more than 45 percent of the “overall project,” rather than the “floor area,” can be used for residential.

“With the multitude of changes, there have been a few inconsistencies, and that is what the remainder of the changes resolve,” Planning and Zoning Director Bradley Killian said during the bill’s Oct. 2 public hearing.

The bill was passed despite concerns raised during the public hearing by Morita Bruce, a Fallston resident and co-president of the nonprofit land use watchdog group Friends of Harford.

Bruce expressed suspicions that changing the limit from 45 percent of floor space to 45 percent of project area would clear the way for more residential development in MO zones, even though “residences do not create jobs.”

Magnolia Overlay district

Another bill making changes to development requirements to the Magnolia Neighborhood Overlay District in the Joppa area passed, 6-1.

Councilman Mike Perrone, who represents the Joppa and Edgewood areas and gave a passionate defense of the existing bill, cast the lone vote against the change.

County Executive Barry Glassman signed the bill Wednesday, making it law. It will take effect within 60 days, according to the text of the bill.

Perrone said the bill, which gives developers the ability to opt out of the overlay district’s regulations meant to create communities with “traditional neighborhood design” and instead build according to the underlying zoning, is an effective repeal of the MNOD.

He objected to that happening less than two years after the district was created in late 2016, with the strong support of an administration wanting to spur development in the area and the near-unanimous support of the council — Perrone cast the lone vote against it in 2016. Councilman Joe Woods was hospitalized at the time and did not vote.

“This bill is the very essence of bad government,” Perrone said Tuesday.

He wondered if the county had been “blowing smoke” with its previously-stated goals of developing an area of Joppa that has languished for years and revitalizing the nearby Route 40 corridor.

The overlay district was created by legislation that took effect in February 2017. It had been requested by owners of two large development properties between Route 40 and Trimble Road. Some area residents complained when the legislation was before the council then that it did not provide enough protection to existing communities or streams and woodlands in the area.

The district was established to help spur residential development, combined with retail and and parks and recreation areas, within several hundred acres bounded by Route 40, Aberdeen Proving Ground’s Edgewood Area, Joppatowne and Edgewood east of Route 152, Glassman administration officials said at the time.

Perrone offered multiple amendments to the MNOD legislation in 2016, but did not get a second on any, meaning they could not get to the floor for discussion or a vote.

He said Tuesday that Councilman Chad Shrodes had offered four amendments that strengthened the original bill, and they were passed unanimously.

“Why are we just turning around and going the other direction?” he asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Perrone demanded his colleagues elaborate on why they would vote yes, saying they owe “the people who live, work and play in this area an explanation.”

Woods said he had been against MNOD at the time, and he still believes it limits the options of developers.

“By putting the underlying development back in, it makes less government,” he said. “It gives the developers more options, and I believe it helps that community.”

He said developers would have the option to build more single-family houses in the area, rather than “cluster” developments, “which I believe the people of Joppa really do want.”

“I do as the neighboring district [representative],” said Woods, who represents Fallston and parts of Joppa.

Councilman Patrick Vincenti said he agrees with Woods’ views on giving developers the option to build more single-family houses using the underlying zoning.

“I think the people of Joppa have seen bare land in there and nothing being done long enough, and I think they’re interested in seeing a community,” Councilman James McMahan said.

“With all due respect Mr. McMahan, I’ll speak for the residents of Joppa,” Perrone replied.

Perrone began making his point when McMahan cut in.

“Excuse me, we are elected for the entire county, sir,” he told Perrone. “Maybe we are in a district, but we are councilmen for the entire Harford County, in case you forgot that.”

Perrone said he had not, and continued. He said he thought the concept of MNOD was “pretty cool” when the administration presented it. He said it is a way to “dangle a carrot in front of investors” with the ability to build a high-density neighborhood, but they must conform with criteria governing aspects such as sidewalks, recreation areas and putting driveways behind dwellings.

“What we were trying to do was bring something to Harford County that we don’t yet have,” he said.

Councilman Chad Shrodes said he has always wanted to see a traditional neighborhood development and a “well-planned community” in Harford, but “it’s hard for me to go along with taking away the underlying zoning component,” since that is still a property right.

“The MNOD is still going to be there, it’s just not going to be forced on whoever is doing the project,” he said. “It’s going to be an incentive, if they want those greater densities.”

Councilman Curtis Beulah said he is not a fan of putting zoning restrictions within the district.

“This gives us the opportunity to go back to a lower density, which is going to mean less traffic,” he said.

Stables bill

Perrone also voted against another of the bills, this one related to commercial and club riding stables built in areas zoned agricultural. The bill sets a minimum parcel size of 5 acres and reduces the setbacks between the stables and neighboring residential lots from 200 feet to 50 feet.

That bill passed, 6-1. Perrone cited sentiments expressed against it by members of the public during the Oct. 2 public hearing as reasons for his negative vote.

People testifying at the public hearing had expressed concerns that the bill was a favor to riding stable developers, and putting such facilities closer to residences could expose neighbors to foul odors, biting insects and truck and horse trailer traffic.

Perrone and Shrodes voted against a bill which replaces the county’s definitions of intermittent and perennial streams in the zoning code with definitions drawn from “the most recently accepted investigation methods” of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Perrone cited concerns about deadly flash floods that hit Harford County Aug. 31, as well as two “epic flooding events” in Ellicott City in 2016 and this past spring.

“I think we need to be careful, because to go and effectively surrender our own ability to determine what does and not constitute a stream, I don’t think that would be prudent,” he said.

Expanded tax credit

All council members voted in favor of a bill which sets tax credits for owners of property near a landfill, and another bill that adds surviving spouses of retired military members, who have not remarried, to those who qualify for a real property tax credit.

The latter bill mirrors an update to a state law that extends property tax credits to people who have occupied the same dwelling for at least 40 years or people who are 65 or older and are retired from the active-duty military, reserves or National Guard.

The County Council passed the initial local version of the state tax credit law in 2017, and it was signed by County Executive Barry Glassman last year. The five-year, 20 percent credit took effect July 1.

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