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Dissecting Bel Air, sustainability plan looks to town's future

ConservationNatural ResourcesMarketingRentalsLocal GovernmentWater Supply

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."

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 plan...it 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."

The town will also be using the plan as a guideline to become a Maryland Certified Sustainable Community. Becoming certified would help the town in its efforts to obtain future federal and state grants to aid in any redevelopment projects.

According to the website http://www.sustainablemaryland.com Sustainable Maryland Certified is "a program of the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland designed to support Maryland's 157 municipalities as they look for cost-effective and strategic ways to protect their natural assets and revitalize their communities."

"Using best practices in resource areas like water, energy, planning, health, food, and economy, a municipality can earn points toward sustainability certification," the website states. "This free and voluntary program, with the full support of the Maryland Municipal League, helps communities choose a direction for their greening efforts; complete their chosen actions with help from program tools, trainings, case studies, and other resources; and be recognized for their accomplishments."

At the Jan. 15 work session, Favero gave the example of the experiences of several communities that have been recognized for their sustainability efforts including Park City, Utah, and Greensburg, Kan. The latter was leveled by a tornado in May 2007 and is being rebuilt as a 100 percent green city with LEED-certified buildings and renewable energy sources.

Existing efforts, assets

Burdette, the commissioner who served on the Bel Air's sustainability panel, said the weekly farmers market in town is an example of sustainability already being promoted by the town. She also mentioned the effort to get public Wi-Fi access along Main Street and in other areas downtown, which is a joint undertaking with the county. Both are included among the report's action recommendations.

In the earlier focus groups, in which about 31 residents participated, among the town's assets mentioned were the armory, open spaces and parks, a "charming" business district, cleanliness, the farmers market, good schools, numerous community events, proximity of residential neighborhoods to core downtown services, recreation opportunities, Rockfield Manor, Liriodendron, a safe community and "a community that is welcoming to business."

Other assets discussed included the town's position as a public and private service hub for the county and the engagement of residents in their town government and various volunteer organizations and activities. The report notes that one focus group member called Bel Air "a unique 21st Century village."

Concerns

Several concerns were mentioned by focus group participants and committee members, among them:

• Traffic. The town is seen as unfriendly to pedestrians and bicyclists; traffic safety issues are viewed as increasing; and there is a perceived need for public transit alternatives.

• The town doesn't have complete control of its destiny and "must negotiate and partner over increasingly complex issues" with county government, state government and the private company that supplies drinking water to Bel Air.

• Environmental degradation is evident, with streams and stream banks prominently mentioned.

• There are growing numbers of residential renters who, in the view of some residents, are not well connected with the town government.

Opportunities

Future opportunities mentioned in the report included:

• The downtown commercial area can become a more attractive destination for visitors and residents. Once again, bicyclists and pedestrians are mentioned.

• Downtown can grow "upwards," with mixed residential and commercial uses - including second and third floor spaces, especially along Main Street.

• The town can become better known as an arts center, particularly for public art.

• The town can develop a better sense of place "because citizens and visitors will become more aware of and knowledgeable about the town's history."

• Overnight lodging services, once common in Bel Air, can be redeveloped.

Threats

Future threats mentioned include:

• A decline of "small town charm" to possibly include "a growing tavern culture that discourages other uses of the core area and raises the risk of crime" and a decline in a sense that Bel Air is a unique place.

• An erosion of the town's "service-center" advantage over other places to possibly include a decline in the attractiveness of the shopping mall, development of competing health care centers elsewhere and dispersal of county services outside of town.

• Decline in contributions of citizen volunteers because of the aging of current volunteers and inability to replace them from younger, "two-earner households."

• With the county, not the town, in control of land use in the Winters Run watershed, there is a threat that the quality of Bel Air's water supply may decrease.

The theme about the water supply and who will control and protect it is found throughout the report. The county government is setting up a permanent public water authority with the likely goal of eventually taking over the private Maryland American Water Company that supplies Bel Air.

The town has its own sewer system, but the sewage generated is treated by the county under an annual cost arrangement that is passed on to residents and businesses.

Action recommendations

Among the action recommendations in the plan are:

• Continued development of the armory and its park and planned marketplace.

• Promoting energy conservation in town-owned facilities and adopting more sustainable operations in town government.

• Improving water conservation and partnering with the county to protect Winters Run.

• Developing a natural resource conservation plan for town parks and other properties.

• Strengthening the development review process.

• Reducing environmental impacts of traffic. Making the town more bicycle and pedestrian friendly and making it easier for people to move between residential and commercial areas.

• Taking a variety of steps to encourage business revitalization and retention, in particular, the commercial and residential revitalization of the downtown core.

• Help Bel Air become a healthier community and increase youth activities.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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