Meg O'Hare keeps a sharp eye out for her Harford Road community

The Carney Improvement Association has limited means, never has more than $1,000 in its financial accounts at any one time and has only about 20 active members.

But it has Meg O'Hare, and that's saying a lot.

O'Hare, who has been president of the association since 2002 and who served on the county Board of Education from 2006 to 2011, has a countywide reputation for outspokenness, independence and opposition to the county's "old boy" network.

"Unilateral decisions are being made in Baltimore County. The citizens don't have a clue," she said in a recent interview in her living room, where a Christmas tree was hung with twinkling homemade ornaments.

One who acknowledges O'Hare's effectiveness as a community leader is David Marks, who represents the County Council's 5th District, which includes Carney. Marks also was president of the adjoining Perry Hall Improvement Association for nine years.

"She is very tough, blunt and to the point," Marks said. "But at the same time she knows when to find a middle ground. ... Carney is lucky to have such a passionate community activist."

That passion became apparent during the biggest land use controversy in Carney in years — a proposal for a CVS Pharmacy at the congested intersection of Harford and Joppa roads. And It put the activist O'Hare squarely at odds with the activist-turned-councilman Marks.

Gridlock is commonplace at the intersection of Harford Road, a state highway, and Joppa Road, a heavily traveled county road. It is the heart of Carney.

Developer J.C. Bar, based in Camp Hill, Pa., petitioned to have the zoning changed for a lot on the southeast corner of the intersection. The zoning change would switch the use from residential to commercial.

A year ago, as the rezoning request wound its way through the quadrennial Comprehensive Zoning Map Process, O'Hare and the Carney Improvement Association lined up against it.

At first, said O'Hare, it looked like packing another unneeded commercial use into an already heavily commercial area.

"We have to have a drugstore on every major intersection in Baltimore County," she said sarcastically.

She wrote letters to the editor calling on Carney residents to make their voices heard in opposition to the project.

Then, Marks made his case in favor of the rezoning.

The rezoning would be tied to an intersection improvement project that would involve contributions from the developer of at least $800,000. Also, the part of the lot not used for the drugstore, about 2 acres, would become dedicated open space.

And, the rezoning would end the possibility of a residential town house project on the lot, which would be buttressed by an unsightly wall at street level and leave the intersection's problems untouched.

Those concessions ended up persuading O'Hare.

"Marks is decent to work with," she said. "He said this intersection would get no attention unless we take this deal."

O'Hare points out that Carney is a desirable community to live in, but that it has two major drawbacks — too much traffic and too little open space.

Joppa, Harford and Belair roads are increasingly used by motorists avoiding Beltway traffic, she said.

"We're a crossroads in Carney. We're the drive-through community."

As to the green scene, Carney residents who want a park experience have to drive to Gunpowder State Park to the north or to Double Rock Park to the south.

"Carney really doesn't have open space," O'Hare said.

The activist has been observing the evolution of the Harford Road corridor her entire life. She grew up in Hamilton (she's a 1967 alumna of Notre Dame Prep) and has lived in Carney since 1973.

She has seen politicians like Marks arrive on the scene and others depart.

She said her experience is that council members whose roots are in community activism are the most responsive and sympathetic to constituent concerns. She includes Marks among their number.

"He hasn't left us high and dry," she said.

Despite a few setbacks, including last year's closing of The Barn, a popular crab house and live music venue, she assesses Harford Road as a healthy commercial corridor.

"The Dunkin Donuts is always crowded," she said with a smile.

O'Hare's clout results from the respect she has earned among Carney residents over the years, according to Barbara Hopkins, executive director of NeighborSpace of Baltimore County, a nonprofit land trust that acquires property for green space.

Hopkins observed with interest as the "good dialogue" between O'Hare and Marks resulted in a compromise instead of acrimony.

"It's absolutely crucial to have people like Meg," she said. "She has an audience of people that subscribe to her message. She's definitely someone who has earned respect."

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