Residents of neighborhoods around the Eva-Mar property near Bel Air are sharply questioning the Harford County Council's role in passing changes in the zoning code last year that the residents say helped facilitate the development planned on the 153-acre site.
Seven opponents of the development asked council members Tuesday night to repeal the changes and suggested the council either ignored the legislation's relationship to the Eva-Mar property or missed its consequences, charges the council president denies.
Elm Street Development, of McLean, Va., is planning to buy the Eva-Mar property, off Route 543 near the intersection of Route 22 east of Bel Air, and put 144 single family homes about two-thirds of the site.
Towson-based Presbyterian Home of Maryland will own and operate a 514-unit continuing care retirement community on about a third of the property. The retirement community would be the first of its kind in Harford.
A group calling itself 543 Concerned Citizens has been circulating a petition online through the website change.org. Leaders told council members the petition has 566 names.
The legislation opponents want repealed, Bills 13-35, 13-36 and 13-37 were sponsored by County Executive David Craig's administration and passed by the council last November. Craig signed them into law, and they took effect Jan. 21. All three were subject to a 60-day referendum period which lapsed. Within days of the laws taking effect, Eva-Mar's developers submitted a revised plan for their project to the county.
William Onorato, a leader of 543 Concerned Citizens, told the council the three zoning bills serve no purpose other than to allow development on a site like Eva-Mar.
He said residents were not immediately aware of their effects but now, "we are awake, we are here, we are angry."
He said the integrity of the county "has been completely undermined" and urged the council to end "this culture of catering to developers that the [County Executive David] Craig administration has fostered."
One bill, 13-35, raised by 10 feet the prior 50-foot height limit for buildings in a continuing care retirement community. The second, 13-36, lowers by one-sixth the threshold for allowing more housing units to be built on a property where wetlands and other environmentally sensitive features restrict building. The third bill extends by a year – to three years – the time a developer has to move a preliminary development plan to final county approval.
The petition of the Eva-Mar opponents contends the three bills are collectively designed to benefit that specific development, while a revised plan submitted to the county early this year takes advantage of the extended height limit and could take advantage of the wetlands-related bump-up in Bill 13-36, if the developer of the retirement community fails to get the requisite state approval.
The opponents also noted that Bill 13-37's extension in the life of a preliminary plan – before the entire development approval process would have to start over – would be beneficial because of the timing of the state approval process for the CCRC.
Slutzky called out
Several speakers questioned Councilman Dick Slutzky's refusal to talk with them about the bills.
Byron Hawley said he went to Slutzky, who represents the area, for help but was told the councilman had to be impartial.
"There needs to be some provision in Harford County law that if your district representative feels he cannot represent you, then your district is not being represented," Hawley said. "No citizen, no taxpaying citizen, should ever get an e-mail that says, 'Sorry, I can't represent you because I have to be impartial.'"
"I was extremely disappointed in not having representation from you, Mr. Slutzky. It's a travesty," another speaker, Lou Estrada, told the councilman, a Republican who is running for council president this year.
Council President Billy Boniface insisted Wednesday that the three zoning bills were not intended to favor the Eva-Mar project and did not affect the project moving forward, making any repeal of the laws useless.
"The council had no clue that the Eva-Mar was coming in two days after the bill was passed," he said, also noting only one bill had a direct impact on the development.
"It didn't matter. The bills weren't going to stop the project," Boniface said, explaining developers would have still submitted their plans.
"The only effect it [the bill] had was how they would submit their drawings, whether they would use feet or stories," he said.
"[Planning and Zoning Director Pete Gutwald] submitted those three bills because he found a couple of years later that some of those things [in the zoning code] weren't working," he said.
Boniface said when he asked Gutwald if the bills were about a specific project, Gutwald had told him that "no, there's no project on the books; they are just corrections that need to be made."
"He [Gutwald] said at some point the Eva-Mar project would be coming in and he said when it does, the bill would affect it but it doesn't stop the project," Boniface said.
Boniface disputed the residents' claims that it was wrong for Slutzky to be impartial and that it left them with no representation.
"In regard to issues like this, your representation is your county executive, on the executive branch," he said.
Boniface said residents "just did not want to hear it."
"They are just frustrated and they don't like the answers they have gotten," he continued, adding that the council cannot affect a developer who is only following the rules.
"There's some things we can do and some things we have absolutely no power over," he said. "If people want the rules changed, then we can look at changing the rules, but you cannot penalize someone who is following the rules."
Met with opponents
Slutzky said Wednesday he met with nine representatives of the residents' homeowners associations about three months ago, along with council lawyer Melissa Lambert.
He said he first sent an e-mail explaining why none of the council members can speak specifically on zoning cases because they also sit on the zoning board of appeals.
He also pointed out that county law requires a continuing care retirement community to be a permitted use in any area zoned for residential use.
Failure to do so could potentially be seen as a violation of the Fair Housing Act, as the housing is aimed at the elderly, Slutzky said.
Slutzky said residents were "professional," despite being upset, but ultimately were uninterested in reams of information the council provided.
"All of these people have been engaged with us for months but they did not come to the meetings and they don't want to hear the information that we shared," he said.
Slutzky, a 12-year county council member, said he does not believe Elm Street contributed to his previous campaigns.
"Have they contributed to my latest campaign? Very possibly, and we have not had that deposited yet," he said, explaining he had not seen contributions received this year.
Slutzky said he has taken contributions from developers in general but they only make up a small portion of his overall contributions.
His campaign report for 2013, which was filed early this year and is available in the state campaign finance database, shows a $200 contribution received Oct. 8, 2013, from the Bel Air law firm of Snee, Mahoney, Luche and Hemlinger. The firm's senior partner, Joseph Snee, is a Presbyterian Home board member and has been the lawyer handling the county approval process for the Eva-Mar project.
Although he said it is "easy to say public officials are in the developers' pockets," Slutzky questioned the idea of singling them out.
"Would I treat a developer any different than a Chinese restaurant?" he asked.
The Eva-Mar project had a county Development Advisory Committee review on April 2, which was attended by about 300 people. The next step in the development process is for the developer to submit a traffic survey and await preliminary plan approval form the county planning department.