Hampstead's current contretemps over the Oakmont Green Center is a not an example of good town planning. From appearances, it seems that Hampstead's council changed its zoning law just to suit this proposed retail complex. The council's handling of this project has damaged the integrity of the town's planning process.
Over this winter, the town government did an about-face on the Oakmont center. Initially, the plan was rejected. Within six weeks,However, the zoning code was revised to more easily accommodate developments such as this, and a month later, voila, it was approved.
Given the timing and speed of the zoning revisions, it appears little thought or deliberation was given to the implications of the changes. Town planning is more art than objective science. It provides the framework for making decisions that will have profound influences on a jurisdiction's future. If properly done, a fundamental revision in the zoning code should take more than six weeks.
Adding to the confusion in this matter is that most of the opposition for the Oakmont center came from the owners of the nearby North Carroll Plaza Shopping Center, who stand to lose their major tenant if the new center is built. Oakmont's developers favored changing the zoning code; North Carroll Plaza's owner opposed it.
The zoning dispute centers on some of the basic criteria for judging whether a project is appropriate for Hampstead. Under the former code, for example, the town needed to determine the "need" for a business center before granting approval. This requirement has been dropped in the revised code.
Determining the need for a business or commercial center makes sense. A vacant building -- regardless of whether it is a century-old or spanking new -- is a liability and can be a potential eyesore. Hampstead already has an abundance of empty retail spaces -- including five vacant storefronts in the new Roberts Field Center. Does the town want more half-filled centers?
At the same time, zoning should not be used to protect failing businesses. North Carroll Plaza, with five vacant spaces and an Ames store on the verge of closing, is certainly in need of refurbishing. Its owner can't expect the zoning code to be used to prevent new centers from entering Hampstead if it is failing to satisfy the surrounding market.