The Harford County Council, along with Pete Gutwald, the county's planning and zoning director, blasted the state's new sustainable growth act Tuesday night for taking away private property rights and trying to control local land use planning.
The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act would require Harford to divide the county into four land use tiers and would prohibit the county from having major subdivisions, or anything larger than five lots, in Tier 4, which covers about 175,000 acres of the most rural land – the majority of the county.
On another 6 percent of Harford land, called Tier 3, property owners would only be able to have subdivisions bigger than five lots with approval from the planning advisory board.
Gutwald presented the county's requirements for fulfilling the act, which was passed this year by the Maryland General Assembly.
Several council members said they were deeply concerned about the state mandate and hoped to mitigate it by revising the definitions of the tiers or other methods.
"This is huge for landowners in northern Harford County. The state is basically taking away 50 percent of the value on their property," Council President Billy Boniface said.
"Greater than 50 percent," Gutwald responded.
Councilman Chad Shrodes said there could be other tools for preserving land while saving property rights.
"This is really going to hit the farming communities down my way," Shrodes said. "This is their asset. This is their equity."
"I know it's not you," he told Gutwald. "I know it's the state."
"It's really taking a lot away from them," he added. "This is eminent domain without just compensation."
Gutwald said regardless of any changes the council might propose, the reality is the next version of the county's land use map must include the tier map.
He did say the proposal takes over what has been the local government's responsibility.
"It is taking what is generally a local jurisdiction role and [county] government has been circumvented by the state process," he said.
Councilman Joe Woods replied jokingly: "So we are not going to need you anymore?"
Gutwald said he has heard of some other counties that are opposed to the legislation, but he believes they do not intend to fight it.
"The reality is, the state does have certain controls over what happens to you, if you do nothing," he said.
He explained Maryland is "really under the gun" to reduce pollution loads into the Chesapeake Bay and has more at stake than other states.
"We are at the epicenter, if you will, of the Chesapeake Bay, so people are looking to the State of Maryland: 'What are you doing, since it's in your backyard?'" he said.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, a member of the state's sustainable growth committee, said although the council is calling everything a "mandate," there are options in the legislation.
"The one thing this map represents from a visual perspective is our county's land use plan," she said, noting Tier 4 is "purely consistent" with the county's existing designations.
Gutwald disagreed: "To a certain degree. The state did take an extra step in controlling the density and [other factors] of it, which is typically a local role."
She said many other jurisdictions have wrestled with the same issues.
"You cannot ignore that what happens on the land affects the water," she said. "Property rights must be preserved, as long as they stop where another person's start."
Councilman Jim McMahan did not like the bill, either.
"This is Big Brother at his best," he said.
Fire station transfer
The council held a hearing on a request to surplus 2.5 acres on Patterson Mill Road to the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company.
The hearing was held despite the administration's failure to send letters informing several adjacent property owners in time for the hearing. The council said residents would still have an opportunity on Oct. 9 and again on Oct. 16 to testify on the bill.
The property was bought for $2.7 million and subdivided and then declared surplus for Patterson Mill Middle/High School. It also had $2.3 million worth of improvements.
McMahan said having a firehouse there will "obviously facilitate the residents of the Emmorton area with public safety."
County administration director Mary Chance said in the past, the county has only paid for part of a new fire station.
"This is the first time ever the county has completely funded the building of a fire station," she said.
Although she was not involved in the initial negotiations of the plan, Chance said: "I believe it would be reasonable to say because it's here in Bel Air, where the bulk of calls are responded to, that when the [Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association] looked at where they needed a fire station, it was there."
"At some point the county agreed to build the facility and fully fund it, then transfer it to the fire company [to staff and equip and maintain]," she said.
Boniface asked if this is how the county will proceed in the future if another fire company approached the administration.
Chance replied: "It's my interpretation, in working with the public safety commission, that this is another issue they're going to look at, and in great detail."
Councilman Joe Woods said when the whole concept started, he believes the county agreed to bear the burden of a new fire station any time it was built in the development envelope.
He said fire stations in Abingdon and Joppa were mentioned for such a process, as well as the Patterson Mill one.
"I think it's the first station that's actually been built in the development envelope in a very long time," he said.
Lisanti questioned what might happen with future road improvements in the area.
"I think it's safe to say there are public concerns that there are improvements needed to that intersection," she said. "If we transfer ownership and then we have to go back and do road improvements, would we possibly have to buy rights-of-way from them?"
Chance said those are questions she would look into.
Water and sewer plan update
Civil engineer Darryl Ivins presented the water and sewer plan update for the fall, which includes two proposed developments asking for water and sewer access.
Hamilton Reserve would have 69 single-family homes on 28.5 acres near Benson, between Connolly Road and Mountain Road, with water demand of 20,700 gallons.
The county is also asking for water and sewer use for a project called Ann's Meadow, which would put 20 single-family homes on 6.1 acres on Thomas Run Road, about 400 south of Prospect Mill Road.
Ann's Meadow would have water demand of 6,000 gallons per unit.
Also at the meeting, the council recognized J. Arch Phillips, E. Francis Lynch and Harold E. "Hap" Smith as Harford Living Treasures.
Boniface offered belated condolences to the family of Leonard Wheeler, the school board president who died recently.
"He was a good man and I think everybody should know that," he said. "I am going to miss him a lot and I think the school board is going to miss his leadership."
Beth Poggioli, president of Greater Fallston Association, thanked the council for keeping Youth's Benefit Elementary School in the out year budget last May.
She said she hopes the state can still set aside some funding for Harford County's schools.