That a few people turned up last week to have their say about the proposed changes in Harford County's Master Plan, an elemental document of land use and development policy, is both heartening and disappointing.
Any time people show up to say their piece at a hearing on a key issue of public policy, it's a good thing. And the sentiment expressed is one that is often expressed when the issue at hand is development policy: People who live in Harford County chose to live here because they liked it the way it was when they moved in and would like to see that character retained.
What is disappointing is that in a county of a quarter of a million people, a scant dozen showed up to make their voices heard. Granted, a few of those who spoke were representing larger groups, but overall, there was hardly a groundswell of support for anything in the proposed modifications to the master plan.
This also is unfortunate. A few key changes to the master plan constitute a first step toward major changes to the county's primary development area, known as the development envelope. This area runs along Route 40, largely east of I-95, from Joppa to Havre de Grace, and along Route 24 from I-95 northwest to Forest Hill. A key change will expand the development area in the greater Aberdeen and Havre de Grace areas on both sides of I-95 on the faulty logic that the existence of the two cities make the area a natural place for more intensive development.
The logic is faulty for the simple reason that the area lacks adequate water and sewer service to support new growth on a large scale. That's because the area historically has relied on the two cities for these services, and both are limited in their ability to increase these services.
Even as it has grown residentially over the past several years, Havre de Grace remains in a financial pickle with regard to its sewage treatment system. Each of a few recent expansions was supposedly going to be paid for by fees charged to new customers, but the reality has been increasing rates charged to both new and longtime residents.
Aberdeen is similarly strapped by the limited size of its wellfields and has become increasingly dependent on the county for its water in recent years.
Opening the territory between the two cities to more development will force the issue and result either in a countywide water and sewer authority that takes over responsibility of the public facilities from Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, or an outright expansion of the county's fairly robust water and sewer system. Either way, the result will be ever-increasing pressure for new development northwest of I-95 into areas that today are still part of a viable, if not robust agricultural community.
Similarly, on the west side of Bel Air, there's a push to expand the development area known as the Fallston Sanitary Subdistrict, which shows up as something of an outgrowth on the edge of the development envelope. It was established as a water and sewer district for an area that was developed beyond the capacity for well and septic systems of the day, even though it was largely outside the development envelope. Now that the infrastructure has been in place, though, the pressure is on to open up neighboring lands to development.
The logic that the land on the edge of developed land also should be open to development sounds good if you own the land on the edge, but as a matter of public policy, it is little more than a game of development dominoes.
Neither expansion of the development envelope is necessary to accommodate growth, as there are places within the development envelope where growth, and re-development, can occur. Moreover, increasing the development area — and the supply of houses — will tend to cheapen an already depressed real estate market, which has the potential to hurt home values of people already living in the county as long as demand remains low.
Holding the line on the development envelope for the foreseeable future is probably the best course of action for Harford County. Unfortunately, the pressure to develop more and preserve less will probably win out, as it almost always invariably does.