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Chesapeake Bay Foundation appeals Circuit Court ruling on forest conservation plan for Abingdon Business Park

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in addition to five Harford County residents, have appealed a county Circuit Court’s decision in favor of the developers of the Abingdon Business Park mixed-use project.

Plans for the business park, slated for more than 300 acres of wooded land near the Route 24/I-95 interchange, have generated controversy, protests and legal challenges since being introduced during a community input meeting more than two years ago.

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Opponents have cited concerns over how the more than 2 million square feet of proposed warehouse, commercial and retail structures could affect surrounding residences, schools and houses of worship, with increased truck traffic on surrounding roads and highways, more noise and bright lights, a potential increase in air pollution, as well as the loss of woods and wetlands that serve as habitat for diverse wildlife and filter water pollution that would otherwise go into the section of Haha Branch stream that runs through the property.

The land is zoned for commercial and industrial use, and the project has received preliminary and site plan approvals from Harford County. The Maryland Department of the Environment also has approved a nontidal wetlands and waterways permit.

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The Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation, along with local residents Cynthia Arthur, Douglas and Jean Bonn, Amber Kazmerski and Beth Shepard, filed suit at the local level in January of 2020. The plaintiffs challenged the county’s approval of a forest conservation plan for the project — such plans show how a developer will preserve wooded areas while building on site, and they are one of multiple documents that must be approved before a project can proceed.

The approved Forest Conservation Plan allows the developer to clear over 219 acres of forest and its habitat, attorneys Paul W. Smail and Brittany E. Wright state in their appellant brief, filed March 15 in the state’s Court of Special Appeals.

The attorneys note, early in in their 75-page brief, that 314.73 acres, out of the 326.47-acre property, is covered by forest, “virtually all of which is contiguous and unfragmented.” Other natural resources include non-tidal wetlands, streams and a section of the Haha Branch, a tributary of the Bush River, which is in turn a Chesapeake Bay tributary.

Circuit Judge Diane Adkins-Tobin dismissed the initial petition for judicial review of the forest conservation plan approval on Oct. 22, noting that approving the plan is not “a final decision” by the county planning and zoning department, but one component of the preliminary and site plan approval process.

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“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,” Adkins-Tobin stated.

The plaintiffs had argued in their initial filing that forest conservation plan approval is a final decision, which they reiterated in their appellate filing.

“The Circuit Court erred when it concluded that a Forest Conservation Plan is not a final agency action because it is the final determination of a developer’s rights and responsibilities regarding forests and associated habitat on the property proposed for development,” according to the brief.

The state’s Forest Conservation Act of 1991 is meant to “minimize the cutting and clearing of forests during the development process and identify priority forest areas for retention and replanting prior to development,” the attorneys state.

“Preserving forests when land is development is therefore critical, as woodlands and their related habitat allow rainfall and pollutants to be absorbed and filtered,” they continued. “In comparison, impervious surfaces like rooftops, parking lots, and other hard surfaces do not absorb rainfall, and that precipitation must be managed as stormwater.”

Building structures with impervious surfaces, in place of wooded areas, affects water quality, “which is why the act is designed with forest conservation at the fore to retain existing forest,” according to the brief.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation had not received word, as of Thursday, regarding a hearing date, according to spokesperson A.J. Metcalf. The county and developers have until April 14 to file their brief, and then the appellants must file a reply to that brief by May 4, Metcalf stated in an email.

Another legal challenge by the Gunpowder Riverkeeper is in the Harford County Circuit Court. Members of the community said recently that they plan to continue their opposition to the business park, even as developer Chesapeake Real Estate Group LLC announced earlier this month that it had sold its contract interest to another firm, Westport Group LLC.

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