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Bel Air to weigh raising height limit on buildings


Buildings could rise to new heights -- four stories -- in a heavily developed section of Bel Air under a measure before town lawmakers.

Private developers could erect four-story buildings rising as high as 50 feet for the first time if the Bel Air town commissioners approve an amendment to a land development ordinance.

The amendment, to be introduced tomorrow night, covers a 126-acre tract about a mile from downtown that Bel Air annexed in 1990. The tract includes Bel Air Town Center, Bel Air Plaza, Tollgate Mall, Harford Mall and 82 acres owned by Bel Air Land Development Partnerships, a group of investors.

Three weeks ago, the commissioners rejected the original development ordinance proposed by the nine-member Bel Air Community Development Commission. The proposal from the commission of town residents and businessmen drew criticism from zoning lawyers and developers for its "restrictive" language.

Mayor W. Eugene Graybeal said he voted against the original measure but supports the amended version. The Bel Air-appointed Community Development Commission -- created to encourage the town's vitality, appearance and business expansion -- rewrote some portions to appease town commissioners, zoning lawyers and developers, the mayor said.

The measure is intended to serve as a guideline for developers and give the town some control over construction to preserve an "old-town look," a town commissioner said.

The intent of the ordinance is to try and ensure we don't have an entrance gate to the town marred by a blacktop jungle, the large expanses of parking lots usually associated with strip malls," said Joseph Brooks.

Mr. Brooks said Upper Chesapeake Health Systems, which owns Fallston General and Harford Memorial hospitals, is interested in building on the annexed land.

George Harrison, Community Development Commission chairman, said the ordinance was proposed because the group anticipates a rash of development of the annexed area since the lifting of a 3 1/2 -year ban on development in April.

Lawmakers imposed the ban because the sewage system that serves the area was inadequate for new development but lifted it after installation of additional pumps.

The rejected amendment would have required developers to reduce the visibility of service areas, which usually include docks and loading zones where deliveries are made. The original measure called for the areas to be at the rear of buildings, separate from main circulation and customer parking areas. New wording simply states these areas be located near the rear of a building.

Peggy Lucas, a town resident who heads the Bel Air Historic Commission, said she is "suspicious and leery" of the proposed legislation. She said she fears that 3-year-old guidelines will be changed to allow for construction that changes the flavor of Bel Air. "I absolutely, positively do not believe development should be extended any farther down Route 24," she said.

Parts of both the Harford County Courthouse on Main Street and the District Court building on Bond Street rise four stories.

In the past, the town has refused to permit construction of four stories or more for fear that new development would overshadow the courthouse. But Mr. Harrison said that because the Route 24 corridor is more than a mile away from Bel Air's historic district any four-story structures built there will not have that effect.

The proposed amendment states that developers may build four-story buildings only if at least 1 percent of the construction cost is set aside for a "park feature" on either the developed property or a site owned by the town.

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