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Lawsuit challenging Abingdon Business Park forest plan dismissed, but legal challenges to project continue

Legal challenges against the Abingdon Business Park warehouse, commercial and retail development continue, even as a Harford County judge has dismissed one challenge filed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and five neighbors of the nearly 330-acre project site.

Circuit Court Judge Diane Adkins-Tobin, in an Oct. 22 memorandum, ordered the dismissal of the petitioners' request for judicial review of the approval of a forest conservation plan by the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning.

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A forest conservation plan, which, according to the Harford County code shows how a developer plans to conserve existing stands of forest while building on a site, is one of many plans that must be approved before construction on a development can start.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation expressed concern, in its initial filing, that developer CREG/Westport I LLC’s plan to remove 200 acres of trees from the forested site could harm water quality in the Haha Branch stream that runs through the property, and then larger waterways into which the stream feeds.

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The site, which is zoned for commercial and industrial use, is near the Route 24/I-95 interchange and is surrounded by a number of residential developments, houses of worship and an elementary school. Members of the community have packed public meetings and held protests urging county officials to stop the development, which includes more than 2 million square feet of warehouse space.

Attorneys for the respondents, including developers CREG and Harford Investors LLP, Harford County and the county’s planning and zoning department, argued that the forest conservation plan is one part of the approval process and not a “final decision” by a government agency that could be challenged in court, as allowed under county and state regulations.

The judge noted that the petitioners “fundamentally agree on the existence and relevance of the ‘final decision’ requirement, but argue that the approval of the Forest Conservation Plan constitutes a final decision.”

She agreed with the respondents and found that the forest conservation plan “is not a final decision of the Department of Planning and Zoning.”

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“It is clear to the Court that many plans, in addition to the Forest Conservation Plan, make up the components of the Preliminary and Site Plans,” Adkins-Tobin stated.

“To permit judicial review of the Forest Conservation Plan would permit piecemeal review of each decision reached by each agency involved in the application process," and would be contrary to the Harford County charter, she added, citing the state and local regulations that allow for court challenges of agency decisions.

The judge noted that the petitioners “are not without relief,” though, as they can still seek court review of the planning and zoning department’s decision regarding “the approval of the overall development plan.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is considering an appeal, although a decision has not been made yet, according to foundation spokesperson A.J. Metcalf.

“The court’s opinion didn’t address the merits of the case — which is whether the county met the legal requirements to approve the forest conservation plan put forth by the developers,” Paul Smail, the foundation’s director of litigation, said in a statement Thursday.

“We continue to believe clear-cutting a mature forest right next to the Chesapeake Bay will cause significant environmental damage,” he added.

The forest conservation plan for Abingdon Business Park was approved in December of 2019, and the county approved the overall site plan for the development Jan. 15, plus the preliminary site plan for Lot 1 on Feb. 18, according to the judge’s memorandum.

The developers have received site plan approval from the county, but additional approvals are needed, such as construction permits, before they can move forward, according to county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby.

“That’s driven by what the developer is seeking to do, and our role is to make sure that any developer follows all of the applicable rules and regulations,” she said of the next steps in the approval process.

A site plan indicates “a general organization of what may potentially be built on a property, including structures, landscaping, buffers and parking areas,” according to Mumby.

Two additional suits, which were consolidated in early October, have been filed in Harford County Circuit Court. The Gunpowder Riverkeeper filed a petition for judicial review July 13, and four residents — Lisa and Michael Lyston, Beth Shepard and Jeanna Tillery — plus the Pomeroy Manor Homeowners Association filed Aug. 13.

All petitioners are seeking court review of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s approval of CREG’s application for a Nontidal Wetlands and Waterways permit — that approval was issued in June. A trial date has not yet been set, according to online court records.

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