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Debate over Harford community input meetings shows challenges of changing development process

Legislation to change procedures for community input meetings that are required for most major new developments in Harford County has sparked a debate among county council members.
Legislation to change procedures for community input meetings that are required for most major new developments in Harford County has sparked a debate among county council members. (BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

An argument Tuesday night over a bill that would have changed Harford County's community input meetings highlighted the challenges of making the county's development process more user-friendly.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti introduced legislation asking developers to invite county planning and zoning officials to community input meetings, which normally take place between the public and the developers or project applicants – without the presence of planners who will eventually review the project.

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Bill 14-33, co-sponsored by Councilman Dion Guthrie, would also not let the meetings be scheduled five days before or after a federal holiday and would require meeting transcripts to be prepared by a court reporter.

Lisanti said the goal is to improve transparency, engage the public and better reflect public comment.

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Several residents from the Eva-Mar farm area of Bel Air and the Glenville Road area of Churchville, both of which have seen major development controversies lately, came out to support the bill.

The other council members, however, argued the council could not compel planning officials to attend the community meetings and said the goal of the meetings was to let the public speak directly with the developer.

The council ultimately approved amendments, proposed by Councilman Jim McMahan, taking out the reference to "inviting" planning officials to the meetings, which Council President Billy Boniface said opens a "Pandora's box."

Lisanti and McMahan arguing over the real goal of the community input meetings, with most of the council agreeing with McMahan.

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The council did not take a final vote on the bill after approving the amendments, which removed most of the bill's teeth. It has until mid-November to act.

Residents like Bill Onorato, who lives in the Eva-Mar area, had said the idea of allowing planning officials in was "definitely a step in the right direction."

"We stepped into the process not knowing anything at all," Onorato said about the Eva-Mar meeting, which he said "was not the best of CIMs" and "really got out of hand."

He said letting developers have complete control over the meetings is "really like the fox guarding the hen house."

"This is the public's first introduction to the development process," Onorato said. "[The Planning and Zoning Department] is a real asset to the county. They act like mediators to the process, and we didn't know that from the outset."

He said planning officials would also gain a lot from hearing the residents' concerns firsthand instead of through a summarized copy of the minutes, prepared by the developer's engineers or lawyers.

Guthrie added that "a lot of people complained that by the time [the project] got to the [Development Advisory Committee] meeting, it was too late."

McMahan, however, said it was not the CIM that is broken.

Planning and Zoning Director Pete Gutwald, whom McMahan asked to speak to the council Tuesday, said the intent of the CIM was to put the applicant together with the community without the department there.

"We are obviously there in a lot of different venues, but a lot of times these meetings were set up to allow for the applicant to engage with the community, not necessarily get the government involved," Gutwald explained.

Gutwald did say the proposed bill "goes a long way toward solving" other issues, including the scheduling problems.

Lisanti argued that developers often give the public wrong information or simply can not answer residents' questions.

"How do you ensure public information is correct and in compliance with the code when you don't participate in a community input process?" she asked Gutwald.

Gutwald said developers have a process to follow and the department double-checks what they do.

"I think there's other methods besides our attendance that can ensure those things," he said, saying that most CIMs have worked well.

"So far, the process has been very successful. There were a handful of situations where they were not to par, if you will, or upset some individuals," he added.

The bottom line for most council members was Council Attorney Melissa Lambert's assertion that planning officials could not legally be compelled to attend the meetings.

McMahan also disagreed with Onorato's assertion that residents are unfamiliar with the planning process in advance.

"People are not uninformed. They're informed," he said.

"The CIM is between the public and the developer," he told Lisanti. "What you put into the new bill is part of the DAC process. This does not require the expertise of DPZ. I don't' want to see it in there. That's why I took it out."

Lisanti replied that the bill is simply an invitation.

"The CIM is about public confidence and conveying accurate information is the sole responsibility of the government," she said. "You don't want the public to leave with the wrong impression."

She also said a CIM is not about the developer and the public but about the entire community and anyone who wants to give input.

"The idea that the CIM is not part of the development process is not substantiated by the mere brochure we give out," Lisanti said. "I think these amendments just over analyze the idea of an invitation."

McMahan answered: "I do not dispute the fact at all that this process needs tweaking. I simply do not believe this is the bill to do it."

Councilman Dick Slutzky also said the bill gives "false perspective and false hope" to the public.

Slutzky said he wants legislation to adjust the DAC process, not CIM, and suggested the council look into the window of time between the two events, as developers can go to DAC immediately after a CIM.

"When you tell the applicant he can apply for DAC right after the CIM, that's disingenuous because the public hasn't had a chance to digest it and look up good information before they get to DAC," he said.

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