The Harford County Council Thursday night weighed the contrasting opinions of residents and developers on a controversial bill meant to limit development where roads are inadequate.
When the votes were counted, the developers -- and County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann -- won before a packed chamber of more than 200 people.
The legislation was introduced by the administration as the final phase of a three-part package of public facilities bills brought to the council more than two years ago. The bills are intended to ensure that an adequate infrastructure of schools, water and sewer lines, and other public facilities exists before subdivisions are approved for construction.
Councilwoman Theresa Pierno, D-District C, had proposed two major amendments to the administration's roads bill that would have strengthened it by barring exemption of certain developments and by preventing further construction in areas with already overcrowded roads.
But it was the original, weaker bill -- "a travesty," in the words of Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson -- that the council passed, 5-2.
Mrs. Pierno, the bill's strongest critic, voted for her amendments with Mr. Wilson and Susan Heselton, a District A Democrat. But )) after the council voted down the amendments, 4-3, she voted with the majority to pass the administration's bill.
"As it stands, it is weak, it is minimal," Mrs. Pierno said after her proposed changes failed. "But if this bill dies, we have absolutely nothing."
As approved, the legislation will require a traffic impact study for any intersection that would be affected by a proposed commercial or residential subdivision. The study will be used to predict what the intersection's level of service -- traffic flow during rush hours, for example -- will be after the development is completed.
If an intersection's service level is predicted to fall below an acceptable level, the developer will be required to make road improvements to bring it up to par.
If the intersection already is at a "failing" level, the developer need only "mitigate," or compensate for, the conditions he or she creates. The developer need not improve the "failing" intersection.
Audience evenly divided
Mrs. Pierno's amendments would have prevented further construction wherever road intersections are given a failing grade.
"I believe it is irresponsible to allow development to continue where there is already gridlock," she told the council and an audience that was evenly divided between building industry advocates and residents fearful of unmanaged development.
Mrs. Pierno's amendments also would have tightened "grandfather" language limiting the number of proposed subdivisions that would not have to meet the intersection service requirements because they already have received preliminary county approval.
Mrs. Pierno said that up to 10,000 homes and commercial units -- for which ground has not been broken -- would be exempt under the administration's version of the bill.
"If we really want a roads bill that is an adequate public facilities bill, we really can't grandfather that many units," she said.
Chief opposition to her amendments came from the homebuilding industry, whose members showed up by the dozens for an abbreviated council meeting Tuesday. Bel Air attorney Frank Hertsch labeled the amendments "ill-advised" and said they would "substantially, adversely affect the business community."
He said Mrs. Pierno's amendments "would basically cut off homebuilding in Harford County."
Mrs. Pierno, who had many supporters in the crowd Thursday when the meeting resumed and a vote was called on the amendments, said her version would not hurt small businesses. She said it was aimed strictly at large developments that would tax already overburdened roads.
Too far, too fast
"Why give the impression we are doing something if we are not?" said Mr. Wilson.
But when the council voted down the amendments, the message was that Mrs. Pierno's version went too far, too fast.
"We're trying to correct the wrongs of six, seven, eight years ago," said District E Councilman Robert S. Wagner.
He said the administration bill was an adequate first step.
Republican Barry Glassman of District D said the administration bill "at least gets us a start with a safety net."
Republican Joanne S. Parrott of District B and Democrat Philip Barker of District F also voted against the amendments.
The 4-3 vote spurred applause from half the audience. That led to some vocalizing from the other half before Mr. Wilson called for order.
When a brief recess was called, one irate resident walked up to each of the four council members who had rejected the amendments and said sarcastically, "Thanks a lot. You just lost my vote this year."