3rd Dist. Councilman Huff says he visited all parcels before voting on zoning changes

County Councilman Todd Huff, who represents the largely rural 3rd District in North Baltimore County, has just finished his first Comprehensive Zoning Map Process.

The Comprehensive Zoning Map Process, Baltimore County's quadrennial rezoning campaign, came to a close Aug. 28 when the County Council voted on the package which included 296 issues at a special session, thus ending the yearlong process and endless battles over proposed zoning changes. The new maps will take effect on Sept. 10.

There were 71 requests in Huff's district, the most of any district. One of only two Republicans on the council and voted into office in 2010, Huff said he visited each parcel and talked with landowners and immediate neighbors.

"It was 10 times more time-consuming that I thought it would be," Huff said on Sept. 5 while sitting in the Cockeysville office of Brooks-Huff Tire & Auto, his family's business. "It was disheartening that so many people assumed a rezoning request meant I was going to do it. I came up with a lot of compromises. I'm hoping I've made my position clear on not taking away people's property rights but instead advocating land preservation."

To uphold personal property rights, he said, he refused to go along with the Sparks-Glencoe Community Planning Council's three requests to lower density on 1,000 acres in Monkton, Parkton and White Hall.The group pushed for the change to protect clean drinking water and for other environmental issues.

"This is the first time in many CZMP cycles that no land was downzoned to save rural lands," said Kirsten Berger, president of the Sparks-Glencoe group. "I'm not surprised, but I'm very disappointed."

Four years ago, then-councilman T. Bryan McIntire downzoned 1,336 acres requested by the same group.

Huff explained that his voting yes to increase density on some properties will actually result in land being placed in preservation programs.

He said McIntire unintentionally downzoned John Turnball's 97 acres on Belfast Road in Sparks in 2008. The owner planned to put an agricultural easement on the property, he said.

"I was just righting that wrong," he said. "That land could have had 30 lots, but it will now be four, with the rest going into some easement program."

Likewise, Huff said he upzoned 175 acres on Stockton Road in Phoenix. He said owner David Smith is now working to put the land in permanent preservation.

Another upzoning on 115 acres on Phoenix Road, owned by Nancy Fait, will result in just two more lots, he said. Fait could have built 10 houses without rezoning and she can now develop 12 lots.

After talking with neighbors who said they'd be OK with a few houses, Huff upzoned some of 104 acres on Quaker Bottom Road owned by Lenis Barney to allow for six houses.

He turned down a request for upzoning to allow more dense development on the 66-acre Mt. Carmel Tree Farm in Parkton. He also didn't give the owners of the Manor Tavern the upgrade in commercial zoning they wanted. Instead, he said his vote would allow them to take down the tent in which they host weddings and parties and replace it with a permanent structure.

Another compromise was Huff's decision to upzone only 30 of 219 acres on Belfast Road in Sparks owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore. The Archdiocese plans a cemetery on the site and Huff changed zoning for just the cemetery portion.

He is now working with the Archdiocese to see if their land next to Sparks Elementary School could be used as athletic fields.

But Huff declined to allow more development on 66 acres at the Mount Carmel Tree Farm in Parkton. That decision means the farm — which has not been profitable in about a decade — will likely close after this year, said Ryan Brown, whose family owns the business.

The family had hoped to create eight lots to sell but to preserve about 48 acres to help keep the farm open, Brown said. But he says his family now will be forced to sell all of the land.

"We were just trying to do the right thing," Brown said. "We weren't trying to overcrowd the schools or kill the trout."

One vote Huff acknowledged he'll "take a big hit on from the community" is his decision to allow Obrecht Properties to build townhouses on 19 acres on York Road in Sparks that was previously zoned for business.

"The Planning Board, Economic Development and the planning staff all thought it was a good project, and I do, too," he said. "It's inside the URDL (Urban Rural Demarcation Line) with public water and sewer and that's where development is supposed to go."

Tom Obrecht, chairman of Obrecht Properties, said he anticipates construction should begin in early 2014 on 80 townhouses that will sell in the $400,000 range.

"I think the local community will find this is less traffic," Huff said. "There will be 160 cars a day, not 1,000 you'd expect if we had developed it all for businesses."

Neighbors had collected 1,100 signatures on a petition against the change.

"This is devastating," said Karen Goshaney, who lives on York Road across from the property and spearheaded the petition drive. "Huff ran on a platform that he wouldn't turn over McIntire's decisions. McIntire didn't change Obrecht's zoning last time. This is a slap in the face."

But Huff disagreed.

"I said I would not arbitrarily go through and undo what McIntire did," he said. "But essentially, I downzoned Obrecht from commercial to residential."

Huff said there were 234 rezoning requests in the 3rd District in 2008, and 71 in 2012.

"Knowing how I feel about property rights and preservation, I'm hoping the next cycle's requests will be next to none," he said.

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