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Harkins wants to hire lawyers for rezoning

Harford Executive James M. Harkins has asked the County Council to approve spending up to $50,000 to retain a Missouri law firm to help revise the county's two-decade-old zoning and subdivision regulations.

County officials, developers and activists agree the codes are vaguely written, which makes enforcement cumbersome and opens the door to subjective interpretations.

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Harkins' request comes as county planners work on a revised master plan, and comprehensive rezoning looms less than a year away. The county has also recently faced lawsuits filed by residents over the handling of development projects and public outcry over perceived abuses of the zoning code, such as the transfer of development rights between agricultural parcels.

"I think we need it; we've certainly been talking about it for years," said John J. O'Neill Jr., county director of administration, adding that now is an appropriate time to revise the regulations so they can be retooled with the master plan and set the stage for smoother rezoning.

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But the size of the projects is stretching the planning and legal departments' resources, making the outside firm's help necessary, Harkins said in his written request to the council. "Due to the time constraints and excessive man hours involved in a project of this magnitude, we need the ability to retain outside counsel," Harkins wrote.

Council President Robert S. Wagner said a regulation overhaul was discussed during former planning director Joseph Kocy's tenure to clarify zoning descriptions and other ambiguities in the codes. "That didn't happen then. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done," he said.

Craig A. Ward, president of Frederick Ward Associates in Bel Air, agreed and said he hoped "any changes could be done in an orderly fashion," along with the land-use plan. "What often comes out [of these processes] is outcry over what people don't want," he said.

Ward said this process should better outline what the community does want, and the resulting regulations should help support that vision.

Former zoning hearing examiner and Friends of Harford member Valerie Twanmoh said parts of the code are murky and open the door to subjectivity.

"They will be interpreted based on what's in the best interest of the decision-making authority, which is not necessarily in the public's interest," she said.

Twanmoh and Ward both pointed to the recent controversy over how developers transferred development rights between agricultural parcels as an example of where a loosely written code had created problems. In recent years, developers have hopscotched rights across several properties to pool them on one farm and create subdivisions.

That section of the code was quickly rewritten and approved by the council in the spring after residents complained that the regulation was being abused. But Ward noted that piecemeal revision isn't always the best answer. "Often times what that tends to do is block more positive things that could occur," he said.

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Twanmoh said the county needs stricter design standards rather than "suggesting" them in community plans and overlays; tighter rules on how land is used on properties with wetlands and other sensitive features; and clearer definitions of development terms used in the regulations.

The county hopes to retain Freilich, Leitner & Carlisle, a small Kansas City practice whose specialties include land use, environmental and municipal law.

Summer vacations had made communication with individual council members difficult for the administration, Wagner said Thursday, but the procurement request would be on the agenda for Tuesday night's council meeting.

Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kaii-Zeigler said last week that rewriting the regulations is one of his primary objectives, and that he is working with the administration and council, but he declined to elaborate.

O'Neill said some terms in the code are poorly defined, or not defined at all.

Wagner agreed. "Clean it up and make it more concise and [conforming to what] Harford County's way of thinking is today," he said.

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The county has also recently been involved in lawsuits relating to the code and brought by citizens who tried to contest development projects.

Ward said cases such as the proposed Royal Farms store in Blackhorse, which garnered a terse opinion last month from Circuit Judge Emory Plitt overturning the project approval and criticizing the county's treatment of concerned citizens, "point out the need for some modifications."

Last week, the Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis ruled against a property owner adjacent to a Spenceola commercial development who had sought to use a letter from the planning director as a basis for appeal of the plan to the county's Zoning Board of Appeals. The court said the planning director's letter did not constitute a formal interpretation "for purposes of enforcement."

Twanmoh - who as zoning hearing examiner on the case ruled that the planning department's letter was suitable for an appeal - said the county's regulations on such interpretations and citizens' right of appeal makes it hard, and expensive, for residents to be heard.

O'Neill, when asked if the county would seek to better protect citizens' interests in the revised code, said, "I think it's one of the things we want them to look at."

O'Neill said residents can come to development advisory committee (DAC) meetings to share concerns, and developers and residents can sometimes work out objections.

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But, he acknowledged, the meetings are not development hearings.

In Harford County, a public hearing on a project is required only if a variance or exception to the code is sought.

"If zoning is all in place, planning and zoning can't say, 'No, you can't do this,' " O'Neill said.

But Carroll Holzer, a Towson lawyer who has represented county residents on similar cases, including the Blackhorse case, said a stronger, fairer recourse for citizens is vital in the county and should be written into the regulations. He compared Harford's code to Baltimore County's - in the 1960s.

"You don't have any place to get your objections on the record," he said. "Not a DAC meeting, not a sham kind of a meeting where citizens can come in and 'register comments.' It has to be a meaningful administrative hearing where evidence can be presented and officials cross-examined."


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