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Harford zoning bill could support mixed-use, industrial projects, but community advocates urge caution

Harford zoning bill could support mixed-use, industrial projects, but community advocates urge caution
A bill being considered by the Harford County Council would allow wood, vinyl and aluminum siding, materials typically used in residential construction, to be used in structures in mixed office districts, such as the James Run development near Route 543 and I-95. (Erika Butler/The Aegis)

A bill currently before the Harford County Council, which would affect a number of different zoning regulations, could support the development of mixed-use and industrial projects — according to the owners and managers of the affected properties — but advocates for local land use are urging caution.

“These changes may seem minor,” Stephanie Flasch, president of the nonprofit Friends of Harford, said during a June 4 public hearing on Bill 19-016. “However, changes based on small requests for development that is not defined or understood clearly could have a dramatic negative effect on the Harford County landscape.”

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The bill, which has not yet been adopted by the County Council, affects definitions and regulations for nonprofit, recreational and private clubs, allows “panhandle” lots in industrial districts, the placement of freestanding signs, adjusts code sections that deal with outdoor dining, as well as regulations on building materials allowed in structures in mixed office zoning districts.

Bradley Killian, planning and zoning director for Harford County, noted during the hearing for Bill 19-016 and Bill 19-015 regarding brewery and distillery zoning regulations, that sections of the county code that deal with land use and zoning are “probably more living and breathing than some of the other sections,” and changes in them happen “perhaps more rapidly” that other parts of the code in response to changing demands and uses.

“It is our obligation to try to keep up with some of those changes, our obligation to the citizens, to the businesses that want to locate here, to the businesspeople that want to operate here,” he said.

Killian added that such changes are necessary because they “allow us to do our jobs more effectively, but also serve the citizens of Harford County.”

The bill sets definitions for nonprofit clubs — those set up for “educational, social, civic, fraternal, patriotic or athletic purposes”; private clubs — organizations that have the same purposes as nonprofits, but these would be for-profit clubs; and recreational clubs such as country clubs or other organizations centered around activities such as boating, swimming, golf or tennis. They can be nonprofit or for-profit, but are not open to the general public, according to the bill.

Councilman Robert Wagner introduced nine amendments to the bill during the council’s legislative session Tuesday, amendments which remove language on clubs, according to Wagner.

The council did not vote on Wagner’s amendments Tuesday. Council President Patrick Vincenti said they will be considered at the next meeting on June 18.

Bill 19-016 would allow panhandle lots, also known as flag lots in industrial zones as well as agricultural and residential zones — they are currently allowed in the latter two. Killian said such lots include a narrow strip leading to the main building envelope for a structure that would be set back from the road. A single panhandle lot would be allowed in an industrial zone under the bill.

Sign regulations would be adjusted to allow the 20-foot maximum height for a freestanding sign to be measured from the road grade, rather than base of the sign, which is the current regulation. The regulations are being adjusted to allow for differences in elevation, according to Killian. The maximum height of a sign can go up 1 foot for every foot of ground elevation above the road grade, up to 30 feet high above the road grade, according to the bill.

“We wanted to correct that problem and not require properties that slope away from the road to have to go to get a variance from the code in order to have a 20-foot sign,” Killian said.

Business operators can also enter into a private agreement with the owner of an adjacent property to place a directional sign on the latter’s property pointing motorists toward the business. The signs must be in B1, B2 or B3 commercial districts, no higher than 10 feet above road grade and within 1,000 of the designated business, according to the bill.

Killian said the change could help operators of businesses that are set back from the road within built-up commercial areas around large road interchanges.

“It might allow them to get some greater visibility,” he said.

Another change would allow wood, vinyl and aluminum siding, materials typically used in residential construction, to be used in structures in mixed office districts. Killian noted projects in MO districts are being developed with more of a residential mix.

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Conor Gilligan, owner of the 111-acre site slated for the James Run mixed-use development near the Route 543/I-95 interchange, said materials such as aluminum, wood and vinyl are “common to residential construction in this market,” but they are not allowed in mixed office districts under Harford’s current zoning code.

He said the current plan for James Run, which was initially envisioned as having more than 1 million square feet of office space to accommodate anticipated BRAC-related growth around Aberdeen Proving Ground, encompasses a variety of uses. Those uses include office, hotels, retail shops, residences such as townhouses and “market-rate apartments,” assisted-living facilities, even an EMS station for Harford County.

“James Run has now been transformed to a true mixed-use campus,” Gilligan said.

Keith Hiss, of the Better Engineering manufacturing company in Baltimore County, is working to purchase a 77,000 square-foot facility in the 1800 block of Fashion Court in Edgewood, as his company prepares to move its industrial machine manufacturing operation from its current home in White Marsh.

Hiss said it is necessary to create a panhandle lot so the property, currently managed by Merritt Properties, can be subdivided and sold under contract to his firm. He said the company can bring about 70 jobs to Harford County “right away,” and would probably add another 30 positions over three years.

“We ship our machines pretty much all over the world,” he said.

Flasch, of Friends of Harford, listed a number of changes to Bill 19-016 recommended by her organization, and she encouraged council members to request a fiscal impact note on the proposed changes currently in the bill from the council auditor.

“FOH recognizes the need to review zoning code regulations as conditions change and new conditions arise, but that does not seem to be the basis for this bill,” she said.

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