Baltimore County

Planning and zoning should help residents, not just developers [Column]

"Zoning" is one of those words that typically make people's eyes glaze over when you say it.

If you ask most people how a townhouse development or a school building came to exist, or why it is where it is, they would probably be unable to tell you.

That's because "zoning," and the land-use process in general, is a pretty abstract concept. It takes a long time for a project to be built, and the process is vague and complicated.

Technically, the process is democratic and people can have a say if an auto auction or Royal Farms is coming to their town.

But the reality is, by the time the average person hears about a certain project, it is almost certainly too late to do anything about it.

This is the point Morita Bruce, who is highly involved with land use and knows the process as well as anyone, was trying to get across at a recent Darlington Community Council meeting.

Morita urged people to get involved in the planning and zoning process early.

"After that, it's almost to the point of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," she noted.

Isn't it interesting that the point when most people get interested in something is usually the point of no (or little) return?

That means if you hear Walmart may be coming to your neighborhood, or you see signs saying "Coming soon…," the ship has already sailed and you have almost no shot of turning it around.

I don't think the whole onus should be on residents to "get involved early."

The government needs to make it easier for people to get involved and understand what is happening.

It also needs to make the development process responsive to people's concerns, not the other way around.

My dad used to always be suspicious when the government puts out something that is complicated or hard to understand. He suspected it was meant to benefit those who are rich, have time to do lots of research or know how to "work the system."

I think a complex land-use process, and complicated language, put at a disadvantage those who are poorer, less educated, less fluent in English or just newcomers to an area.

I doubt the more than 100,000 new people and children who arrived in Harford County during the past 30-some years have all been paying close attention to all the development and political history that has gone on.

Although Harford is wealthier and better-educated than the state average, 7.5 percent of residents are below poverty level, according to the most recent Census.

In some places, like Edgewood, the poverty level was 16.8 percent between 2008 and 2012, and 12 percent of Edgewood residents spoke a language other than English.

At the very least, the county could put out information about what residents can do if they are concerned about a certain development.

For example, when governments want people to know something important, they make it colorful and eye-catching.

The State Highway Administration has bright orange signs warning about road construction and looking out for road crews. The federal government made bright "Putting America to Work" signs to promote projects funded by the Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Signs for community input meetings, meanwhile, are black-and-white, often with small writing, that are boring and easy to miss.

They often fall down and are impossible to read while driving past, which is strange for a largely suburban-and-rural county.

How about a sign like, "Attention! Walmart could go here. What do you think?" Or what about basic pamphlets answering questions like, "How can I stop a development from happening?"

(The answer could include things like working with the property owner or thinking outside the box of the perfunctory development meetings.)

Obviously landowners have property rights and they can absolutely develop a property the way they see fit. The county has to balance property rights with letting residents have their say about the future of their own communities, which is extremely tricky.

But developers and builders already have a leg up, both historically and today. They know how to "work the system." They know the most efficient way to get a project done, and they know who to talk to and when. They know to call themselves an "LLC," which (coincidentally) makes it much harder for anyone to find out who they are. They can hire lawyers, traffic analysts and public relations people.

The average person can't do any of this.

The least the government can do is try to level the playing field.

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