Half a dozen people who live around a Bel Air-area farm slated for extensive development once again pleaded with members of the Harford County Council Tuesday evening to either stop the project, reduce its scope or repeal three changes to the zoning passed by the council which opponents claim were crafted to favor the project.
"You know a lot more information now than you did when it was introduced by Mr. [Council President Billy] Boniface at Mr. [County Executive David] Craig's request," resident Lou Estrada said during the public comment portion of Tuesday's council meeting. "If you were to know all the facts you know now, would it have passed the smell test? I don't think so; we don't think so."
Estrada was referring to Bills 13-35, 13-36 and 13-37, which were approved by the council in the fall of 2013, shortly before plans for the controversial Carsins Run at Eva Mar retirement community and single-family home project were submitted to the county.
Opponents made similar pleas for the repeal of the bills during the council meeting on April 8 and at the April 2 Development Advisory Committee meeting, where the plan for 144 single-family houses and the 512-unit continuing care retirement community on the 152-acre farm was reviewed.
Planning and Zoning Director Pete Gutwald described the bills as "housekeeping" measures for the county's zoning code when they came before the council last fall. County officials, including Boniface, have said the code changes will have little to no impact on the Eva-Mar project.
Estrada noted Tuesday that, if the code changes do not have an impact on the project, then the developers and county executive "must not mind if you repeal the bills, so go ahead and get that process rolling since it won't affect the project."
"The arrogance on display here by our own government is appalling," said Bill Onorato, a resident of Tudor Manor, one of the subdivisions surrounding the Eva-Mar farm off Route 543. The farm is slated to be sold to Elm Street Development of McLean, Va. Presbyterian Home of Maryland would then acquire a portion of the property for the retirement community.
Onorato pleaded with council members to "restore our faith in government and repeal these bills."
"This is about doing what is right for the people that elected you," he said. "This is about doing what is right for all of the people of Harford County."
Norm Maged of Tudor Manor noted he had been "screwed" while in the business world, and compared that experience to what residents around Eva-Mar are going through.
"I know what's happening," he said. "I don't like it; that's why I'm here that's why we're all here."
Opponents stressed that they are not anti-development or against having a retirement community in Harford County, but said a 500-unit community is not suitable to be built along the two-lane Route 543 in the midst of other residential and commercial developments.
Two other speakers expressed their support for the project.
Kim Wagner, co-chair of the Harford County Chamber of Commerce's legislative committee, said committee members recently voted unanimously to "offer our public support of this project."
She said it would "provide an economic benefit to the small business community while putting very little stress on our infrastructure."
Wagner noted the project would also create 160 jobs, up to $15 million in annual sales for local businesses plus $800,000 in revenue for the county.
"This facility allows our seniors to age in place here in Harford County," she said.
Another woman who lives near Jacksonville, Fla., and has family in the Bel Air area said the type of retirement community proposed by Presbyterian Home would be ideal for her.
"I was delighted to find out that that is being considered," she said.
She asked council members to consider the project "favorably."
Boniface noted the project is not before the council.
"It's going through the development advisory process in the executive branch, but we appreciate your comments," he told her.
Council members did not address opponents' call for repealing the bills during the meeting. Boniface said last week the council had "no clue" the Eva-Mar plans would be submitted two days after the bills were passed.
Septic reserve bill
Bill 14-10, or the Septic Reserve Area Modification and Standards Update, was the subject of a public hearing by the council Tuesday.
The bill's main provision involves cutting the septic reserve area for new residential lots in half, from 20,000 to 10,000 square feet. It also passes along a state requirement for the installation of Best Available Technology systems, instead of traditional septic tanks, to reduce nitrogen runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.
"The quality of the water that comes out of these new systems is closer to water than wastewater," Kevin Barnaba, environmental health director for the Harford County Health Department, said during his testimony.
Barnaba noted Harford is the only county in the state that still has a 20,000-square-foot septic reserve requirement and that "every other county in Maryland" allows reserve areas of 10,000 square feet.
Councilman Chad Shrodes is the sponsor of the bill and has said it will help landowners who want extra space for pools and other accessory structures on their property. He and the health department have denied the legislation is a backdoor way to permit more building lots on rural properties not served by the public sewer system.
"If they work... why do we have a greater standard than what the state requires?" Shrodes said Wednesday about the BAT systems. "I think it's a property rights issue, and I feel that our requirements are more stringent than what they need to be."
Ronald Swatski of Bel Air and John Mallamo of Churchville spoke against the legislation, saying it could lead to building more homes on a parcel since less space must be reserved for septic systems.
"This legislation really speaks to capacity," Mallamo said.
Joseph Thompson of Bel Air, who noted he is a professional surveyor, said the legislation would help the design of residential lots and leave space for additional structures to be built by homeowners.
"We want to make decent lots where you don't have to shoehorn the pool in... it's zoning that's going to create more lots," he said.
The final speaker said the matter should be limited to properties being developed under Conservation Development Standards for building in rural residential and agricultural districts, rather than be applied to the whole county.
"There's a lot of good parts to this bill," Morita Bruce, president of the Friends of Harford advocacy group, said. "However I think it should be limited to the CDS."
Under the CDS, developers must cluster their lots on the parcel to preserve as much land as possible, and the lots are limited to three quarters of an acre to two acres, according to Shrodes and the county planning and zoning website.
Under traditional development standards, Shrodes explained, the minimum lot size is two acres and there is no maximum lot size. A parcel can be divided in any manner "provided you don't go less than two acres," he said.