The Bel Air Town Commissioners preside over multiple public hearings each year on various ordinances, and most hearings are conducted following a process of giving members of the public and managers of a specific project time to speak, followed by comments from the commissioners.
The rezoning hearing scheduled for next Monday, during which the town commissioners must determine if changing the current zoning for the former Bel Air Academy at 45 E. Gordon St. is necessary, is a somewhat different animal.
"This is a little different from the regular public hearings that you have," Town Attorney Charles Keenan told the commissioners during a work session Tuesday evening.
Keenan spent about 45 minutes preparing town officials for the rezoning hearing. The commissioners will consider changing the current B-2A zoning, or central business gateway, to B-2, or central business.
The five-member Board of Town Commissioners includes two new members, Phil Einhorn and Brendan Hopkins, who were elected in November.
Keenan noted the rezoning hearing will have a structure similar to a trial. The attorney for the applicant will present a case in favor of changing the zoning, supported by expert witnesses who testify under oath.
Bel Air Attorney Robert Kahoe will represent the applicant, Linthicum-based property developer John Zoulis, who purchased the formerly county-owned building at auction last February. Zoulis wants to redevelop the academy as a two-building, 32-unit apartment complex.
"He has to present facts that establish that there was a mistake when the board [of commissioners] that adopted the present zoning map, adopted it," Keenan said of Kahoe.
Kahoe, who attended Tuesday's work session, has been a zoning hearing examiner in Harford County rezoning cases, a role that is similar to a judge. During those cases, attorneys for the applicant present their client's argument in favor of a rezoning, and the people's counsel, representing the public, presents arguments against the rezoning. Members of the public can testify, too.
The hearing examiner takes all of the arguments into consideration and issues a ruling.
Bel Air residents will not, however, have a people's counsel at the upcoming hearing. Members of the public, and the town commissioners, will be in the position of asking the witnesses questions and making statements as to whether the correct zoning is in place.
Keenan stressed those questions and comments must be related to zoning matters, not aspects of the apartment complex project.
"You'll listen to the evidence, and if you make a finding that there is a mistake [in the zoning], you have to base your finding on facts that are established by the applicant," he told the commissioners.
Keenan said it is up to the commissioners to establish the exact protocol for public comments and questions. He said if the commissioners allow the public to question witnesses, they must ensure "we don't get off the subject, which is why the property was zoned the way it was, when it was."
"They can give their comments, but they have to also understand that their comments may not be really considered as evidence," Keenan said.
The academy property was designated B-2A during the town's comprehensive rezoning process in 2009. The academy, which was built in the late 1800s, has been used as an elementary school, high school and headquarters for Harford County Public Schools.
It is on the south side of East Gordon, according to the town zoning map.
It is part of a district that includes several commercial entities on the north side of Gordon near Klein's Shop Rite. It abuts the B-2 business zone that covers Bel Air's Main Street commercial corridor, according to the map.
The academy property had been zoned R-3, or high-density residential, until the rezoning. The neighboring Bel Air Elementary School is in an R-3 zone, but the academy property was subdivided from the elementary school.
The Bel Air Board of Appeals rejected in October Zoulis' application for a variance on building height restrictions – the two-story academy building would accommodate seven units, and the second four-story, 55-foot tall building would accommodate 25 units.
Buildings in B-2A zones are restricted to three stories and 45 feet in height. Appeals board members as well as neighborhood residents and business people expressed concerns during the hearing about the impact on Gordon Street traffic and that the second apartment building could dwarf surrounding structures.
Keenan reminded the town commissioners that their ruling on the rezoning will be separate from what other town bodies, such as the Planning Commission, have stated regarding the project.
"You may reiterate what they're saying, but you should make your own findings based on what's presented in front of you," Keenan said.
Commissioner Hopkins remarked that he and his colleagues must make a ruling based on a "preponderance of evidence," not proof that is "beyond a reasonable doubt."
"Which is what I call, 'The 51/49 [percent] theory,'" Hopkins said.
The commissioners discussed the best way to incorporate public comments into the hearing.
"I don't want the public to be taken aback, like we're not trying to address their questions," Commissioner Patrick Richards said. "They may want to get up and say something else about the application overall, and then we're going to have to say, 'This is only specific to this witness.'"
Einhorn said Mayor Susan Burdette, chair of the board of commissioners, should "lay the ground rules out at the very beginning of how things are going to work out."
"If somebody needs to be corrected a little bit, I would suggest that you do that, so it's not a hodgepodge where everybody's jumping into everything," he told Burdette.
"I'm not hesitant to do that," Burdette replied.
The hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday at Bel Air Town Hall at 39 N. Hickory Ave. Anyone who has questions should contact the town planning department at 410-563-4540 or firstname.lastname@example.org.