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Residents spoke Tueday night against a bill that would make a bundle of changes to Harford County's zoning code, saying it would encourage developers to build more.

The bill would halve the amount of land required for exemption from forest conservation guidelines and allow a waiver for an applicant demonstration hardship, which troubled those who spoke at a Harford County Council hearing in Bel Air.

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Planning and zoning director Pete Gutwald told council members the forest conservation piece of the bill is simply following state guidelines.

He said the Maryland Department of Natural Resources "blessed" the changes proposed in the bill and the county is mandated to follow them.

But residents of Bel Air's Tudor Manor neighborhood, who have been fighting plans for a large retirement community, said the changes, especially allowing a waiver process, would benefit developers and hurt those who live in Harford.

Bill Onorato, one of the organizers of the fight against development of the Eva-Mar property near Route 543, told the council developers will have a "field day" with the legislation.

"The way this is written, it's just rife for abuse by developers," he said. "I think the goal for you is to have developers line up opposed to it. I find it curious there's no developers here."

He and several others said applicants with "hardships" should follow the normal, publicly-vetted process for a zoning variance instead of getting a special waiver.

Onorato said other counties require similar requests to go through a variance process and wondered if Harford is "pulling something completely out of thin air."

Onorato also took objection to the changes being bundled into a large bill, which also proposes revisions to regulations on everything from "cottage houses" to temporary signs and the definition of livestock.

"I don't think changes to the zoning code should be lumped together like this," he said.

Gutwald defended the bill as simply the accumulation of lessons learned from the department's past "trials and tribulations," and it was not prompted by any specific organization or development.

Onorato wondered if Gutwald has become "a tree protection czar with no checks and balances on his power."

He also wants to see the county set stricter environmental protections guidelines than what the state is requiring.

"There is nothing preventing us from being stricter," he noted.

Byron Hawley, another Tudor Manor resident, said he wants the council to consider making the bill more stringent in regard to protecting trees, as his neighborhood – adjacent to the Eva-Mar property – has a number of champion trees.

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"The exemptions for a tree cannot be taken lightly," he said.

John Mallamo, a Bel Air resident who questioned the rationale for zoning bills previously, again wondered about the legislation.

"I was confused," Mallamo said about his review of the law.

"I look at this bill and I am curious, why are we moving it?" he asked.

Morita Bruce, representing the development-monitoring group Friends of Harford, had questions about wording of some housing definitions and the approval of certain temporary signs.

"We think we are seeing an explosion of signs and we don't think that is something any of us wants," she said.

She agreed with Tudor Manor residents that a variance is needed in the forest conservation section instead of a waiver.

She said a process without public input and official documentation "is against the whole idea of transparency in government."

She also said properties with trees are often in natural resource districts and the zoning code already allows up to 30 percent of NRDs to be destroyed for things like stormwater management ponds.

"Please don't give up any more," Bruce said.

Transit grant approved

Also at Tuesday's meeting, the council unanimously passed a resolution allowing the county executive to apply for transportation grant funds from the Maryland Transit Administration during the upcoming fiscal year.

"This is a standard we do every year," Council President Billy Boniface noted.

The council also held a hearing on a bill to repeal the Facilities and Operations Advisory Board, which legislative liaison Nancy Giorno said has had no members and been effectively nonfunctional for many years.

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