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Several Bel Air residents fight town hall and win on proposed rezoning

Harold Hubble, a resident of Moores Mill Road, asks the Bel Air Planning Commission to consider not recommending his house for comprehensive rezoning during a commission meeting Thursday. Town Planning Director Kevin Small is at left.
Harold Hubble, a resident of Moores Mill Road, asks the Bel Air Planning Commission to consider not recommending his house for comprehensive rezoning during a commission meeting Thursday. Town Planning Director Kevin Small is at left. (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Three Bel Air property owners made their voices heard Thursday and were able to prevent zoning changes for their dwellings, out of the 51 properties reviewed by the town's Planning Commission as part of the ongoing comprehensive rezoning process.

Phil Raub, chair of the commission, stressed that a major goal of Thursday night's hearing was "to make sure that everybody's heard, to get their input, whatever it is."

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The commissioners had a list of 48 properties recommended for rezoning by town planning department staff and three more properties where rezoning was requested by their owners.

The comprehensive rezoning follows the approval of the town's 2016 comprehensive plan for the next six years.

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The rezoning is needed so the selected properties are zoned in a manner that reflects the current use, or that is consistent with surrounding properties, Planning Director Kevin Small said. Additional goals include stabilizing neighborhoods, supporting economic development and encouraging "the uses that benefit the town," he said.

Downtown Bel Air historically hasn't been their first place that comes to mind when talk turns to tourism and visits to Harford County, but town officials and local business leaders believe the town has evolved into a major county destination and have many ideas how they can take advantage of its popularity. To make the town a little more visitor friendly, four wayfinding kiosks are planned.

The elected Board of Town Commissioners has the final say on rezoning, and the planning commission members recommended the zoning changes proposed for all of the properties except for two single-family houses along Moores Mill Road and a cluster of nearby condominium units on Oak Moore Court.

Planning staff recommended bumping up the zoning from the current R-2 residential to R-3, allowing for more intense residential uses, such as multi-family dwellings. The three were among seven properties along Moores Mill Road slated for upzoning to R-3, including the campus of Harford Day School.

"What we're looking at is the total land use in the area," Small said.

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Small noted the few single-family homes along the road, which are surrounded by multi-family apartment and condominium complexes, so it does not seem to be appropriate to continue having single-family dwellings in that area.

Harold Hubble, who lives in the 600 block of Moores Mill, disagreed. He also spoke for his neighbors, the Hatchers.

"I'm very happy to leave it R-2," said Hubble, who has lived on the same property since 1961 when much of the surrounding land was undeveloped.

The Town of Bel Air is embarking on its comprehensive rezoning plan, allowing people to apply for individual property rezoning through Aug. 26. Town planning staff have identified 47 properties they believe should get new zoning classifications.

"If there's a chance of my property going up in taxes, then let's leave it R-2 and I'll go with the flow," he said.

Hubble said it took about 52 years to get Moores Mill Road improved by Harford County, which maintains the road and completed a major retrofit in 2013.

Hubble's wife, Gerry, said the traffic on Moores Mill, driven by schools, businesses, subdivisions and apartment complexes, is "horrendous."

"Now that [the road is] repaired, it's still atrocious," she said of traffic.

Raub, the commission chairman, agreed with the Hubbles' concerns that more multi-family units could create more traffic.

"There would be more cars going by, for sure," he said.

Commission members voted 4-0 in favor of excluding the Hubble and Hatcher homes, as well as the Oak Moore condominiums, from the properties recommended for rezoning.

"There's no reason for it to be R-3," Kim Atkins, an Oak Moore resident, told the commission.

Atkins also spoke against changing the zoning for the commercial property at the intersection of Moores Mill and North Hickory Avenue from B-1 to B-3, which would allow for more intensive business development – the property is occupied by Kelly's Hair Design.

Small said it would make sense for the salon property to have the same zoning as the shopping center across the street.

"I just don't want a Wawa 24/7 outside my front door," Atkins said.

The planning commission approved recommending the property for rezoning, despite Atkins' concerns. Small noted the property is too small for a Wawa convenience store, although it might be possible to build one if parcels were combined there.

Commission member Keith Powell asked Small if "spot zoning" is a problem, meaning different zoning on a single property from those that surround it.

"It's just not desired to have individual parcels zoned differently from their neighbors," Small said.

A potential increase or decrease in property values was also a concern expressed by some of those attending the hearing.

Francis Gontasz, a resident of the Hearthstone at Village Square condos off of West Broadway, asked if downzoning could devalue his property.

"The property taxes are based upon the land use and not upon the zoning," Small said. "It's what's out there actually determines the value of the property, so it would not affect your taxes."

Bel Air town officials want to develop an "identity" for the town through the 2016 comprehensive plan, so the Harford County seat becomes a destination for visitors, similar to its sister Harford County municipalities of Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

He said that information came from conversations with Bel Air's finance director and the state tax assessor's office, but he pledged to double check.

Owners of three properties requested rezoning. They include land behind The Colorlab Academy of Hair near the intersection of Archer Street and Baltimore Pike, land adjacent to the offices of Dr. Raman K. Sood on South Main Street and a lot on the property of St. Matthew Lutheran Church off of East Churchville Road.

The owners wanted the changes to expand their businesses, or in the church's case, establish facilities for services such as helping the homeless.

Steve Burdette, a former town commissioner and mayor and the husband of current Mayor Susan Burdette, spoke on behalf of the church. He serves on the grounds committee and assists with small development projects.

Burdette stressed the church does not have "any plans for the immediate future" for expanding services.

"We would like to have this opportunity for the future and the flexibility to do this," Burdette said.

The rezoning recommendations will be introduced to the Town Board on Oct. 17, and a public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 7, Small said.

The first of three Heroin Prevention & Awareness Briefings for Harford County residents takes place at Edgewood High School Wednesday night. (David Anderson, Baltimore Sun Media Group)
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