The city of Aberdeen is on track to become 38 acres bigger and the latest plan to put homes north of Gilbert Road closer to the Wetlands Golf Course is one step closer.
The Aberdeen City Planning Commission voted, 5-1, Wednesday evening in favor of an annexation request from developer Clark Turner to annex a 38-acre parcel at 830 Gilbert Road and rezone it from agricultural to low-density residential development to allow Turner to build 50 single-family houses that will be priced in the $400,000 to $450,000 range.
Despite the margin by which it passed, planning commission members were divided on the proposal. Nancy Kosko decided to abstain from the vote. Karen Heavey was the only commission member who voted against the annexation, but one member who voted for it expressed reservations.
A number of residents, both from within Aberdeen and from the immediate surrounding area, also spoke about the annexation during the planning commission meeting.
Heavey said she has been vocal over the years in opposing development on the western side of I-95.
"As a citizen, I stick to that. I definitely am not in favor of this annexation. Based on the info at the [community input meeting held last month on the annexation], it's a lot of the same players as the Wetlands annexation, different corporation names. To me it's just one small part of what they were trying to do," Heavey said.
As a business owner, Lance Hersh said, he fully supports what the developer is trying to do.
"I'm definitely disturbed by the fact that there's a prejudice or bias against a property owner because of something they did in the past," Hersh said, noting that if a convict comes back to society, he is supposed to be treated like a regular citizen.
"I don't think you can base this project on anything that's happened in the past. I think that's a very dangerous road to go down," he said. "As far as people who are property owners here, we can't tell them how to use their property."
Chuck Doty, a resident from Edmund Street and spokesman for Aberdeen Communities Together, a group that successfully fought the annexation of the golf course and surrounding properties five years ago, said his group has taken a stand against annexation for the city in general at this time.
"Our city has many issues; we're finally moving forward in many of them. We'd like to continue this without the burden and the pressure of additional lands to take care of," Doty said, adding that previous annexations have decreased the city's quality of life.
Robert Price, of Gilbert Road, said he was against the annexation before and hopes the city council keeps it where it is.
"This is ag land. It was zoned ag; it was not brought in under [the county's] comprehensive zoning," Price said. "If you take this land in, this is just the beginning…they've got to take the golf course next."
Price also questioned the wisdom of working with Clark Turner after the contentious Wetlands battle of the past.
"You're doing business with the same guys," he said. "I couldn't do that, with my citizens, if I was the mayor or city council, look them in the eye, and say, 'This is what I'm doing now.'"
Commission member Terri Preston said she did not hear any comments that would lead her not to approve the annexation.
"It seems the main issue is everyone's concerned this is going to lead to something else," Preston said. "To me, we have to think of this project as this project, keeping in mind what we want to do with the city overall and I think we do want to expand the city, we want to get better housing , we want to bring people in… I just think we have to deal with this project as it is today."
While Turner has said he is acting alone on his project, the developer's lawyer, John Gessner, said previously he has other clients, including those in the original Wetlands annexation group, who are likely to seek land use changes from the county and possibly eventual annexation by the city.
Commission member Bill Braerman said he thinks with the present environment, it would be better to leave the site agricultural, but voted for the annexation, anyway.
Commission member Mark Schlottman said the city already has congestion and traffic problems, and people in general cannot afford to buy homes on large lots required by ag zoning.
"The original plan was one house per 10 acres and I'm not sure anyone can afford one house per 10 acres today," Schlottman said, adding that unless someone was born on Post Road or East Bel Air Avenue, "you are probably living in a place that was annexed in at one time."
Also, he said, "we have a lot of R2 homes. We have nice homes in Aberdeen but we don't have a lot of upper-scale homes."
Planning commission Chairman Joe Swisher agreed with that logic, as did others.
"I think Aberdeen needs a whole spectrum of housing opportunities. I think this is a part that's needed," Swisher said. "We have started annexing over on the other side of 95. It's perfectly legal to annex it."
Hersh added that residents have asked him why more chain businesses have not moved to Aberdeen, and he explained the reason is lack of housing.
"They will not come without rooftops; it just isn't going to happen," he said.
City Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck, who is the council's liaison to the commission, criticized the logic of those opposed to the annexation.
Landbeck, who was on the planning commission for years before her election to the city council in 2009, said the proposal is in line with the city's comprehensive plan and said commission members should stand behind that as their vision.
"This is our development envelope, it's not the county. We have the right as a municipality to make our own development envelope and we did it," Landbeck said. "In here, that area has always been Aberdeen planning commission's recommendation for annexation and for you to suddenly say, 'It's not in the building envelope,' that's not true. It may not be in somebody else's but is in ours."
She criticized Heavey and Kosko for putting the city council in a "real difficult bind" if they say the annexation could open the door to everything.
"Trust me, this is not Wetlands. This is very sound planning," Landbeck said. "You're not going to have a continual annexation and the crowding that happened with the other…this is even better than what the planning commission offered the first time."
City Planning and Development Director Phyllis Grover had no problem with the annexation, calling it an extension of Eagles Rest, another community on annexed property, and consistent with the comprehensive plan.
"This property is located in the Gilbert Road planning area," Grover said. "I certainly would support the annexation as it's being presented to you this evening."
First of several steps
Wednesday's planning commission vote may be a key first step in the process, but several more steps remain for Turner, who does not own the property but has contracted to buy it, before he can begin building any houses.
The five-member city council, which includes Mayor Mike Bennett, must also approve the annexation, and the Harford County Council must approve a waiver because the site's proposed city zoning is inconsistent with the county's master plan. Without the waiver, state law requires a five-year waiting period before higher density zoning can take effect.
Even if Turner secures those approvals, the annexation could still be petitioned to referendum and overturned by voters, as happened in 2006 when the city government approved annexation of 524 acres including the golf course and the site Turner is seeking annexation for now. The 2006 plan for "Wetlands" called for high density R3 zoning and at least 1,000 new homes.
After the 2006 annexation was overturned by city voters by a nearly two-to-one margin, the same group proposed a similar annexation under another name in 2007.
Before the plan could be acted on by the city council, however, annexation supporter and then mayor Fred Simmons lost his re-election to Bennett in the 2007 mayoral election, as did one of the council members who also supported the plan. When the second proposal finally came to a vote a year later, it was defeated by a 3-2 margin. Ruth Elliott and Ruth Ann Young, the two council members who voted with Bennett to defeat the second annexation attempt, are still on the council.