Charting Bel Air's future

Bel Air's new sustainability plan calls for more efforts to revitalize the town's commercial core, while also worrying about possible adverse impacts from "a growing tavern culture." (ALLAN VOUGHT, Aegis staff / February 7, 2013)

What will the Town of Bel Air be like in five years? Or in 10 years?

A comprehensive plan adopted by the Board of Town Commissioners at the Jan. 22 town meeting tries to answer these questions by looking at where the town is today, how it is perceived by residents and where it wants to go in the future.

One of the basic conclusions of "Sustainable Bel Air 2013-18" is that town residents, business owners and government officials should work to protect and enhance what many of them already consider Bel Air's social and economic advantages, while at the same time protecting and nurturing its environmental assets.

The plan explains sustainable community development as the interaction of economic, environmental and social systems and says it is "based on present-day facts, and it anticipates situations that are likely to emerge over time. It means managing change from the present into the long-run future. It involves development for the current population and for the sake of generations to come."

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The smallest of Harford County's three municipalities, both in population – about 10,200 residents and in land area – 2.8 square miles, Bel Air is the seat of county government, the county's largest retail center and home to a major regional medical center, some of the many advantages noted in the sustainability plan. Bel Air is also one of Harford's more affluent communities, from the standpoint of both median household income and property tax base, the latter despite the large number of government and other tax-exempt properties in the town limits.

The town also has a number of evident or perceived problems. Its core downtown retail and office district suffers from numerous vacancies, despite periodic bursts of investments by commercial property owners. Many older residential properties have been acquired by investors to be used as rentals, including a number that have been turned into halfway houses. Increased crime and traffic are frequently mentioned when residents and people talk about the goings on in town. The sustainability plan, however, doesn't dwell on the negatives, but rather looks at where potential liabilities can be improved and/or eliminated.

A service center

For Bel Air to survive, according to the sustainability plan, it needs to maintain its position as a service and retail center for the rest of Harford County and beyond. One way to ensure that happens is for the town to protect its water supply, a somewhat daunting task, as noted in the report, because the town is at the mercy of other governments and entities for many of its basic services, including its drinking water.

"Bel Air will be community that engages in partnerships - between the town government and its citizens, between Bel Air's public and private sectors and between the town and external organizations - to creatively integrate a sound economy, a healthy environment and a caring society," says the report's vision statement.

To arrive at this vision for the future, the sustainability plan is broken into three main headings, with dozens of action recommendations in each:

• Conserve and enhance the natural resources and environmental quality of the town.

• Preserve and strengthen the competitive economic advantage of Bel Air as a multi-service center and destination marketplace.

• Enhance the reality and reputation of Bel Air as a healthy, safe and vibrant place.

"Sustainable Bel Air," which can be viewed in its entirety on the town's website is also an extensive blueprint for community involvement, in addition to being a muted warning to the town's citizens not to be complacent or smug about their community.

In voting to accept the plan, Mayor Eddie Hopkins called it "an excellent has substance and we should measure the progress we make."

Town Administrator Chris Schlehr, who served on the committee that developed the study, said it contains a system for tracking progress toward implementation.

Focus groups, interviews

Working in conjunction with the town's planning department, a Sustainability Planning Committee and Green Team developed the plan with the aid of facilitator Philip Favero, a consultant who specializes in such plans. Members of the panel included several town department heads, Town Commissioner Susan Burdette and volunteers Jay Ellenby and Marion McCarron, who serve on the Economic and Community Development Commission and Bel Air Tree Committee, respectively.

Favero and others conducted interviews with town residents in three focus groups during September and held an open house in October for town residents to give their views on the future. They also gathered data on residents' action preferences during the Healthy Harford Day event in October.

During a briefing on the plan Favero gave to the town commissioners at their work session on Jan. 15, the need to conserve and protect the environment was prominently mentioned. Town Planning Director Kevin Small said, however, the plan should be viewed as "incentive based," explaining it was the committee's "desire not to be punitive."