James M. Uhler bought 10 acres on the north side of Route 140 in Finksburg in 1978 expecting to use it to augment his heavy equipment andtrailer sales business.
But he faced one major obstacle: It was zoned for conservation, because it abuts Liberty Reservoir property. Uhler, owner of Uhler Equipment Sales off Route 140 in Finksburg, needed industrial zoning to conduct business.
After 13 years of unsuccessful rezoning requests and court hearings, Uhler finally achieved his goal when the county commissioners voted, 3-0, Aug. 19 to grant the zoning change for 5 acres of his 10-acre tract. He had argued all along that conservation zoning -- which permits one residence per 3 acres -- was improper and rendered his property economically useless.
The decision went against recommendations from the county's planning staff, Planning and Zoning Commission, Water Resources Bureau and Health Department, Baltimore's planning department and the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments.
Members of those agencies have questioned the legal basis for the decision and the commissioners' commitment toward protecting the reservoir's water quality and honoring the 1984 Reservoir Watershed Protection Agreement. The agreement says that member jurisdictions won't reduce conservation and agricultural zoning in favor of more intensive uses in the reservoir watersheds.
Pollution problems were detected in the three reservoirs providing water to Baltimore in the 1970s. The watersheds are in Carroll and Baltimore counties.
"We feel this violates the spirit of the agreement," said James Kapplin, spokesman for Baltimore City's public works office. "Where do you draw the line?"
At the rezoning hearing, a Baltimore watershed management official said the city must rely on Carroll government to protect its interests by mitigating potential environmental problems. Though he said the city prefers not to get involved in local zoning decisions, he cautionedthat granting the request could set a precedent opening similar lands to more intensive uses.
Carroll Bureau of Water Resources chief Catherine Rappe said one rezoned parcel may not adversely affect the reservoir, but the "cumulative" impacts of many land use changes within the watershed could.
"That's how the Chesapeake Bay and the reservoirs got in the shape they're in," she said.
The Uhler propertyeast of Route 91 abuts reservoir land owned by Baltimore City. The industrial portion is separated by a conservation buffer. The parcel was zoned conservation in 1965 and reaffirmed in the 1981 Finksburg comprehensive plan.
"I think (the decision) is a big mistake," said Planning Commission Chairman William V. Lauterbach Jr., a county commissioner when Uhler submitted a similar petition in 1983. That petition was denied, and the decision upheld in 1985 by Carroll Circuit Court.
"I think it's something that could be shot full of holes in Circuit Court," Lauterbach said.
The decision can be appealed within30 days.
Legally, property can be rezoned only if a "mistake" is determined in the original zoning or a "change in the neighborhood" is demonstrated. Both standards are difficult to prove.
The rule says there is "strong presumption of correctness of original zoning andof comprehensive rezoning." To achieve a "piecemeal change," a petitioner must demonstrate "strong evidence" of a mistake or "substantialchange" in the neighborhood's character.
The commissioners ruled a "mistake" in zoning was made, contrary to previous findings by planners, past commissioner boards, the court and the 1991 planning commission determination.
Uhler argued that the zoning district was improperly drawn based on property boundaries, not according to land contours. His property borders a strip of industrial-zoned property to the west.
The commissioners say it was a mistake not to extend the industrial district in 1981. The county can mitigate the potential for pollutants from the site reaching the reservoir through developmentreview, which requires storm water management and erosion control plans, they say.
"I think every environmental consideration was thought out well," said Commissioner Elmer C. Lippy. "Environmentalists shouldn't have any concerns."
Commissioner Donald I. Dell said the property will increase the county's stock of industrial land, which is in short supply.
"We felt there was adequate buffer and it wouldnot hurt the reservoir to have a business established there," he said.
Others offered different perspectives.
Kapplin and a BRCOG environmental planner who helps administer the reservoir agreement expressed concern that the decision could lay groundwork for other rezonings along the Route 140 corridor and within the watershed.
CountyPlanning Director Edmund R. "Ned" Cueman said petitioners often citenearby rezonings to bolster their cases. He said the conservation zone near the reservoir would have been made even larger, but business uses pre-dated the 1981 Finksburg plan.