Harford considers lowering buffers around on-farm commercial activities

A bill to change buffer yard requirements in agricultural-commercial districts drew some concerns during a Harford County Council public hearing Tuesday night.

Bill 13-52 would remove a line in the zoning code requiring a 50-foot buffer between commercial activities permitted on agricultural properties, such as produce stands or dairy sales, and any public road and any off-site residence. The change would instead require only "a buffer yard" of vegetation between any parking or storage area and a public road and any off-site residence, not specifying the width of the buffer.

Planning and Zoning Director Pete Gutwald explained the rationale behind the change, saying it would reduce the amount of land the owner would have to set aside for a buffer.

Existing requirements that the business be set back at least 200 feet from any public road and 100 feet from any adjoining property would not change.

David Keyes told the council he recently dealt with buffer requirements when opening an ice cream stand at his farm near Havre de Grace.

"Some of the requirements are very cumbersome to us opening up a business," Keyes said.

He added he appreciated Councilman Chad Shrodes and Gutwald for bringing the bill forward.

Keyes nevertheless was not sure it was good to have one set of rules for the agricultural-commercial district and not for others.

"We want people to see us from the road to attract the people there," he said, explaining why a buffer does not make sense.

"We don't need trees in front of our property to hide our business," he said. "There has to be some kind of compromise to make it easier for certain kinds of ventures like I've done in the past."

Gutwald said Thursday he proposed lessening the buffer requirement because of the possibility the existing law forces the property owner to idle productive farmland.

"We have had a number of land owners talk to us about their concerns, people who are thinking about starting businesses, like a wedding venue or construction services," Gutwald said, citing two of the commercial uses permitted in the district.

He said a vegetation buffer would still be required around the parking lots and storage areas, including from a public road, and also noted that the highway and adjoining setback requirements will remain.

Two residents of Tudor Manor, near Bel Air, wondered about unintended consequences of the bill, as did Morita Bruce, a resident of Fallston, who said she is "puzzled" about the bill, noting it does not specify the kind of buffer yard, whether it is forested or how big it should be.

Bruce asked if a difference would be specified between a parking area or storage area and a house?

She said she would like to see a 50-foot buffer be measured from the property boundary.

"Otherwise, I believe you are encroaching on people's property," she said.

John Mallamo, a Bel Air resident, said it would be helpful to know who is behind bills like these.

He said it is important for everyone to understand that someone brought forth the legislation.

"I would like to know on any bill like this who they are for and why we are doing it," Mallamo said.

Two Tudor Manor residents said they are concerned about any proposed buffer plan, citing worry from residents about plans to build a large continuing-care retirement community on the 153-acre Eva-Mar property near Bel Air.

They said allowing an ice-cream stand without a buffer is very different from, theoretically, allowing a retirement community and that unintended consequences should be considered.

Gutwald said Thursday, however, the changes affect only the commercial enterprises on agricultural properties. Though most of the Eva-Mar property is farmed, it is zoned for residential use and development.

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