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Bel Air does well to reject floodplain development [Commentary]

The Bel Air Planning Commission's decision last week to deny permission for the construction of 48 townhouses on a portion of a property owned by St. Matthew Lutheran Church was a sound move that is likely to prevent a lot of unnecessary anger and irritation in years to come.

In 2010, the town annexed 52 undeveloped acres of church property, and the assumption at the time was a portion of it would end up being developed. While 48 townhouses on 52 acres may sound on the surface like a relatively low density, as a practical matter, a good deal of the property is not suited for development.

Bynum Run, a fairly substantial creek, flows through the property and a lot of the land is in the 100-year floodplain for the stream. Under Federal Emergency Management Administration regulations, building isn't permitted within the 100-year floodplain. Failure to comply could affect the way federal flood insurance is administered in town, town officials stressed.

Upon reviewing the plans, town officials found properties for 27 of the 48 proposed townhouses would have been in the 100-year floodplain, which is largely what resulted in the town planning commission denying permission for the project.

Developer Mike Jones had countered his plan was to add fill dirt to raise the ground level of the affected properties in hopes that the result would be land no longer in the 100-year-floodplain. Such a proposal is flawed on many levels. First, raising the floodplain on one side of a creek is likely to have adverse effects on the opposite side of the creek, or farther downstream, in times of high water. Beyond that, the notion of filling floodplains, swamps and lowlands to clear the way for development is one that was largely discredited after it was widely practiced well into the 1960s to ill effect both on the environment and the general stability of the resulting developments.

A filled in floodplain or swamp doesn't necessarily take away the geological characteristics that made the territory a floodplain or swamp, and those characteristics could easily show themselves within a few years of a development being completed. Not far from the St. Matthew property is Plumtree Park, a park that was built on top of the filled-in headwaters of Plumtree Run. The park, and surrounding yards, for years have been prone to irritating, though probably not dangerous, flooding and last year the town, in a way, surrendered and began digging up the stream bed to allow the creek to retake its eons old spot.

Fill in Bynum Run's floodplain, and there's a risk of the same kind of problems developing at as yet unbuilt homes.

Then there's a substantial legal issue pointed out by town officials: Developers can raise the land level all they want in a floodplain, but that doesn't change the official designation of the floodplain under the law. Only action by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to change the floodplain map will actually result in such a change.

There are provisions in building and development laws to allow for site-specific exceptions when a property has unique attributes, but just because a developer asks doesn't mean the special permission needs to be granted. After all, every parcel of land has certain characteristics that make it unique, so from a certain perspective, there's reason to ask for exemptions to the regulations when any property is developed.

As a practical matter, however, liberally granting special exceptions to development regulations essentially means there are no regulations.

In other words, there's no harm in a developer asking, but there can be substantial harm done to the integrity of the community if the town doesn't know when to say no. In this instance, Bel Air did well to say no, just as it did in 2004 when the same developer asked to be allowed to count public parking spaces for the Ma & Pa Trail as part of the parking spaces required to build on the former Gleneagles property on the opposite side of town.

That project was made to work within the development regulations the town had in place at the time, and this one also can be built successfully within the letter of the law.

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