Harford County residents often speak against major development projects slated for their communities, but a local advocate for "responsible land use" stressed that residents must make their voices heard well before a specific project is proposed and plans are drawn up.
Friends of Harford President Morita Bruce, who spoke to the members of the Darlington Community Council Wednesday, said residents can have the greatest impact when they speak up as county officials modify countywide land use plans and the zoning code.
"After that, it's almost to the point of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," she said during the meeting held at the Conowingo Visitors Center.
Friends of Harford is a volunteer group made up of residents who want to promote "responsible land use," Bruce said.
She encouraged those present to visit the group's website, http://www.friendsofharford.com, and sign up for e-mail alerts of various community meetings and updates about county development policies.
"We try to be the citizens' voice, and you are the citizens," she said.
Bruce stressed the group does not take positions on individual projects, but will weigh in on matters that have a countywide impact.
Friends of Harford is working with county officials to put forth an ordinance regarding the regulation of outdoor lighting, as a "quality of life" issue for county residents.
Bruce said those who protest during community input meetings and Development Advisory Committee meetings, when detailed plans for a project are presented, typically end up making the project only slightly better for their community.
She said "you're basically asking please" at that phase because developers have essentially met their legal requirements.
A resident can get a change made, if they spot an aspect of the project that is clearly illegal, she said.
Bruce used as an example the people who have protested plans to build a 514-unit continuing care retirement community and 144 single-family homes on the 150-acre Eva-Mar Farm east of Bel Air.
During community input meetings in January and February, hundreds of residents of the single-family home communities surrounding Eva-Mar have loudly protested the project; they have stressed the project is ill-suited for the area along Route 543 (North Fountain Green Road).
The developers have changed their plans to meet community concerns, cutting the number of retirement community units by about 200, but the project has not been stopped. The concept plan is on the agenda for the April 2 Development Advisory Committee meeting.
"Unfortunately that ship sailed when the zoning code listed CCRCs as allowable in R1 (residential zones)," Bruce explained.
She said county officials develop their combined master plan and land use element plan every eight years – the most recent master plan revision was in 2012.
Bruce said the master plan is a "philosophical document for where Harford County in general is going," but the land use element plan is "really the heart of what this master plan is supposed to be," because it establishes boundaries of communities, the development envelope, which is where development has access to public water and sewer, and "priority preservation areas," such as the agricultural zones where commercial and residential development cannot occur.
She said the zoning code, which undergoes a comprehensive revision every eight years – the last one was approved in 2009 – is "where the rubber hits the road."
"The zoning code says what you can do, where and under what conditions," Bruce said.
The zoning code is also updated on a "piecemeal" basis between comprehensive rezonings as developers request "special exceptions" or "special developments" from the county.
The applicants must present their cases to a zoning hearing examiner, and the county's Board of Appeals – the Harford County Council – has the final say.
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Surrounding residents can also testify before a hearing examiner.
"It is an opportunity to get in there and explain to the hearing examiner what you're worried about and ask him to do something about it," Bruce said.
She encouraged residents to voice their concerns to members of the county council and to the county executive's office, since county staffers are responsible for developing land use and zoning changes.
Council President Billy Boniface and Councilman Chad Shrodes gave brief how-tos on how residents can gain elected officials' support on legislation that would affect land use/zoning issues.
"Each council member has the right to put their own legislation [in], but individuals would have to get a council member to sponsor a bill for them," Boniface said.
Shrodes encouraged residents to work with the county executive's administration.
"If it's something that they don't concur with, they can oppose you, so it's better to work as a partnership, especially on the more complicated types of bills," Shrodes said.