When he recently complained to Harford County plans review officials about how a small housing tract planned next to his 30-year-old neighborhood near Bel Air would worsen the flooding his back yard already experiences when it rains, Mario Venetos received a sobering response.
"We probably wouldn't allow your house to be built today," Morris "Moe" Davenport, chairman of the county Development Advisory Committee, or DAC, told Venetos.
Venetos and a dozen of his neighbors living on the south side of the Greenridge II neighborhood, off of Route 543 in Fountain Green, appeared during the panel's mid-January review of a plan for a 17 single-family home development to be called Roberts Crossing.
The 13.5-acre property, just north of the entrance to the Fountain Green Swim Club, has an existing house and is panhandle shaped, with the widest portion of it forested.
Thirteen houses would be built along the existing driveway from Route 543 that will be named Shady Tree Court and will end in a cul-de-sac that will also serve the existing house. Three additional houses will be built at the rear of the property, currently wooded, with a forest buffer left in the middle.
Davenport, who has been a county planner for 25-plus years, said regulations have changed on stormwater management and forest retention to protect people buying new homes, as well as the owners of properties nearby, from conditions like the "river's in my back yard," that Venetos described.
That, however, appeared to be little consolation to Venetos.
"It's not going to get better, it's going to get worse," said the homeowner, as many of those seated around him nodded their heads in agreement.
The Roberts property acts as a buffer between the houses in Greenridge, built around 1986-87, and a 281-acre working farm, known as Christopher's Camp. The farm is in a state conservation easement and cannot be developed, according to owner Nelson Polun, who also attended the DAC session.
When Mitch Ensor, of Bay State Land Services, said the development is "professionally designed," so the water flows toward Route 543, away from homes on Flintlock Drive where Venetos lives, Polun noted the water then will be "draining toward my property."
The residents of Fountain Glen II were complaining about what has long been known in Harford County as infill development, small enclaves of new houses constructed on properties that for reasons ranging from size and market conditions, topography or their owners' personal situations, were bypassed by developers during the county's housing boom, which proceeded full steam from the late 1980s until the early 2000s, and then evaporated in the Great Recession.
The DAC panel also is scheduled to review on Wednesday a plan to build seven houses on 16 acres off Route 152 and next to Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston.
The Roberts Crossing project came through the county agencies for approval three years ago, according to Davenport, but because of the economy never progressed to the construction stage.
The latest plan, with a new developer, Roberts Glen LLC – a venture between Gaylord Brooks Realty, of Baltimore County, and the John Roberts family that owns the land, is different from the one previously reviewed, Davenport said.
One of the revisions, which places the three lots in a panhandle arrangement through an extension of Hickory Ridge Drive, off Flintlock Drive in Greenridge II, drew particular fire from the neighbors, who questioned what will happen during snowstorms, since the proposed drive would be only 16-feet wide, not really wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other, let alone to pile up snow.
Several of those present said they did not object so much to the houses on the Route 543 side of the property, but said the developers should not be allowed to build the three planned at the rear.
Either way, many of them said, the traffic congestion on that stretch of Route 543 is some of the worst in the county and having another lane funneling additional vehicles onto the highway will raise additional safety concerns. Since 2011, there have been several fatal accidents along Route 543 between Route 22 and Route 136, including one near where the development is planned.
According to the county, the 17 houses planned for Roberts Glen will generate an estimated 206 vehicle trips daily.
Stephen R. Smith, president of Gaylord Brooks, said his company is willing to work with the neighbors and address concerns they raised about stormwater management, for instance, but he declined to say after the session if the company might reduce or eliminate the rear lots.
For the most part, Davenport said, the plan appeared to meet county and state regulations. All 17 houses would be served by the county sewer system – the existing house uses a private well and septic system – and the 13 houses on the front of the property would have county water service.
The three houses planned on the back, however, must be served by the private Greenridge Water Company that serves Greenridge II. Darryl Ivins, of the Division of Water and Sewer, said the private water company must still certify it can service the planned houses and meet county fire pressure standards.
Harford's residential development has been slowly emerging from the depths it reached a decade earlier, but only gradually, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman noted in a recent interview with editors of The Aegis.
An apartment boomlet that has seen some 700-plus units permitted in the past four years, many which have been now been built and occupied, appears to have run its course, Glassman said. He called the market for new single family houses "flat."
Several prominent developers, meanwhile, have complained the cost of developing in Harford, in terms of regulations and the costs of hooking up to county water and sewer services, makes larger developments difficult to justify economically and hard to finance, in an era of greater oversight by lenders following the housing crisis.
Those conditions make the smaller infill developments – on properties whose owners are aging and/or have experienced development around them – more attractive to build from an economic standpoint, with less market risk involved.
Harford also has gradually whittled down what were once considered among the toughest regulations in the state to build houses served by private, on-site septic systems, which has made it more attractive to develop on some of the smaller tracts in areas that don't have public water and sewer.
In addition to already drastically cutting the amount of land each lot must have in reserve to support replacement septic systems, the County Council has a bill before it to remove current mandated requirements that new and replacement septic systems use so-called best available technology, or BAT, for nitrogen removal, leaving such requirements to the discretion of the local health department.
A public hearing on the legislation, Bill17-003 sponsored by Northern Harford Councilman Chad Shrodes, will be the evening of Feb. 21.