Most new building in Bel Air remains on hold because of water woes

During 2013, the Town of Bel Air continued its efforts to promote sustainable growth and development, but at the same time, town officials had to stop the approvals of new construction projects as state, county and municipal officials work out the town's water supply concerns.

"The [Harford County] Health Department, at the direction of the Maryland Department of the Environment, restricted the issuances of building permits and limited subdivision activity, and the town and county are working hard to address this issue," Planning Director Kevin Small said, while presenting the Planning Commission's annual report for 2013 at Monday's town meeting.

The Board of Town Commissioners voted unanimously to accept the report.

Officials with the Maryland American Water company, which supplies water to the town, the majority of which is drawn from the Winters Run just west of town, have told Bel Air officials that the supply could be in jeopardy in the coming years.

Small said Tuesday that building has been restricted since April 2013 at the direction of the Harford County Health Department. That decision has amounted to a moratorium on new construction that remains in effect, he said.

Plans for projects within the Maryland American service area can still be approved by the planning commission, but they can only proceed to the building permit stage if they do not increase demand on the water system, Small explained.

"It really is a review of each project as it comes through with regard to its water demands," he added.

Last year, the planning commission recommended suspending the town's development approval period of two years, and the town commissioners approved a resolution in November to "pause" the approval process.

That means builders who have received plan approval do not face a two-year time limit to proceed with construction.

"As long as the review of the water demand is still in effect, then there would not be the typical two-year expiration of a preliminary plan approval," Small explained.

Another significant regulatory change highlighted in the report was limiting to six the number of townhouses that could be built in a group on land in R2 residential zones.

Despite the restrictions on building that came later in the year, the Planning Commission approved a number of building projects during 2013, including a new McDonald's restaurant at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 24.

A 24-unit townhouse community was also approved for land owned by St. Matthew Lutheran Church along Churchville Road.

Planning commission members initially rejected in April 2013 an application by developer Mike Jones to build 48 units on the 52-acre parcel because of concerns that more than half of the lots were "within or touching" the 100-year floodplain boundary.

Small said the developer "had to pull it back so that all the units were outside of the floodplain."

The plan for the 24 townhouses indicates the site would be served by nearby Harford County water infrastructure, not Maryland American.

The planning commission also approved several plans to build single-family home subdivisions of one or two lots apiece along Main Street, Shamrock Road, Wallace Street and Maulsby Avenue, Small said.

He noted some of the single-family developments could be affected by the water restrictions. The McDonald's project was able to proceed, however, because an existing building is being replaced.

Some of the town's sustainable development initiatives for 2013 include transportation improvements to promote bicycling and walking, as well as development requirements for bike racks and other "bicycle-related amenities" to encourage more bike riding; developing initiatives to reduce "non-point source" stream pollution; and encouraging tree planting and creating a "regional greenway" to protect local streams and floodplains, according to the report.

Several town commissioners heaped praise on the members of the planning commission.

"What an incredible bunch of people, who volunteer their time, who are good stewards of growth and development in our community," Commissioner Edward Hopkins said.

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