Commentary: Land planning a boring issue, until it affects you

Sometimes it's the cause of some of the most passionate discussions, rhetorical brawls and long-term grudges in local politics.

It's at the root of the Walmart controversy affecting Abingdon and Bel Air. It was notoriously behind a political upheaval more than 20 years ago when voters tossed out a majority of the county council over plans to allow a rubble dump near Havre de Grace, not to mention plans for proposed malls at the I-95 interchanges with Routes 152 and 24.

Whenever the bulldozers start plowing through farmland or forest, and the people living nearby were unaware something was in the works, it becomes a big issue in the neighborhood, albeit at a time when it's a little late in the game.

Most of the time, though, it's an issue few people pay attention to because it is tedious and downright boring.

The issue is land use planning, which is tedious and boring because it involves master plans (which are like grand visions), infrastructure plans (defining areas that will be served by roads of varying sizes, not to mention public water and sewer service) and, importantly, land use, or zoning, designations for particular plots of land. Dense and uninteresting as this paragraph is, it is actually an oversimplification.

So mind-numbingly detailed are the definitions that the four urban residential zoning designations in the Harford County zoning law, known simply by the names R1, R2, R3 and R4, consume pages 155 through 166 of the law. In addition to outlines including specific definitions, they also include several charts and tables defining how big, how much per acre, how many per lot, how far from the property line and so on.

Running afoul of zoning laws when you're trying to build a grand party deck, but a corner comes too close to the edge of your property makes them seem like over-reaching and unnecessary government regulation. When your neighbor plans to build a gaudy deck that is so close to your tomato garden that it blocks the morning sun, zoning laws seem like just the kind of thing government should be doing to keep you safe from your neighbor from doing something that diminishes your property value.

In the Walmart case, the retail giant is proposing to build exactly what is allowed on the land where they intend to build it, near the corner of Route 924 and Plumtree Road. While there are some legitimate community concerns about traffic, it is going to be hard from a legal perspective to tell the land owner, the developer and Walmart corporate they can't build something that is allowed under the law. Clearly this fight isn't over yet, though.

Meanwhile, zoning and land use regulations are invoked every business day in Harford County as people apply for permits to do everything from build decks to demolish obsolete buildings.

Generally speaking, land regulations in Maryland have been the bailiwick of cities, towns and counties. In Harford County, Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace all have their own sets of land use plans and zoning codes; for areas outside these municipal boundaries, the county's land use and zoning laws are in effect.

For the past few months, however, there has been another land use issue at play that has been of extreme concern to a few tuned-in people, even as it has been largely ignored by most people who regard themselves as unaffected by it. That issue is a state law enacted with the stated goal of preserving rural and agricultural land and generally trying to confine development to areas served by public services.

It's generally a given that everyone is in favor of preserving rural and agricultural areas. Even housing developers love such lands because when they're next to a housing development, they make it more appealing to buyers. Getting away from it all has long been the selling point of suburban houses, even as suburban development eats up rural and agricultural land, making it ever more urban.

The fights in this matter won't be over whether preserving undeveloped land is good or bad. Everyone involved in the discussion will be nominally in favor of protecting open spaces. The fights will be about the specific tables, charts and pages of definitions in the law that affect the development potential of particular properties, if it ever comes to that.

The other issue at hand is a fundamental one when it comes to the difference between state authority and local authority. Historically, local authority, not the state government, has held sway over land use issues based on the notion that the local folks know best how to manage the territories they and their neighbors own and use.

The state, however, has intervened in the past in a notable case when the health of the Chesapeake Bay was believed to be threatened by over-development, and the shoreline counties were seen as being unable or unwilling to curb waterfront development. The Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Law ended up being enacted in 1986, over the opposition of local authority and property rights advocates. The development restrictions have met with some success in holding the line on bayshore development, even as they are blamed for increased and detrimental development along Maryland's ocean bays.

This time around, the argument is similar, that the counties have failed to confine high density development in a meaningful way to areas well-served by roads and other public infrastructure.

To date, Harford County has come out in opposition to the state law. Meanwhile, controlled-growth advocacy organizations have generally supported the state effort.

It remains to be seen which side will prevail. Certainly, controlled growth organizations have dedicated memberships, but developers are equally well-organized and generally better funded. The fight promises to be an intensive one, even as it will be largely under the radar for many people.

It is a political discussion, however, that's well worth paying attention to, regardless of how you feel about it and regardless of how boring it is. The reason: it will affect you at some point, one way or another.

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