In the wake of criticism from County Executive David R. Craig and a vocal group of Churchville citizens, Fallston County Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith said Friday she will rescind her vote to approve intense business development of a parcel on Route 22 near the former Big M drive-in theater.
Last week a "no" vote from Chenowith, a Republican from Fallston, would have struck down the project. But with the council now down to six voting members after the mobilization of a councilman for military duty, she will need to secure another vote to change the outcome.
On Tuesday, the council passed two amendments introduced by Councilman Richard C. Slutzky that would allow about 35 acres of agricultural land to be upzoned for a shopping center. Slutzky, a Republican from Aberdeen, said the current appearance of the property was a "blight," while lawyers representing the landowners argued that the development wouldn't be as bad as critics say.
Chenowith, who said she reluctantly voted in favor of the upzoning, told The Sun she would move to rescind the amendment before the council votes Tuesday on the rezoning package, and was urging others to as well.
"I would have preferred to have seen some split-zoning, but it was Mr. Slutzky's district and there seemed to be a feeling among most of the council members to take a kind of a hands-off approach to issues in other council members' districts," said Chenowith. "But I don't think it's the end of the story."
County officials say Route 22 - which connects the county seat of Bel Air and Aberdeen - is expected to become a crucial artery as residents and jobs associated with expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground arrive. Moreover, the planning and zoning department rejected upzoning requests, stating a desire to craft a better growth plan along the corridor over the next five years.
Allowing more development flies in the face of the desire to make it easier to get from the center of the county to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Craig said. "I would've much preferred to have that opportunity to plan for that area."
The amendments passed by a 4-3 vote at last week's meeting. Chenowith said she believes she has three votes in support of rescinding the measure and was seeking the fourth. Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican from Bel Air, Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat from Joppatowne, and Council President Robert S. Wagner, a Republican from Churchville, voted against the amendment Tuesday.
"We all knew what we were voting on Tuesday," Wagner said. "The issues haven't changed."
The makeup of the council, however, has changed drastically since then. Cassilly, who voiced frustration with the council's upzoning decisions several times during the meeting, left this weekend for military training in North Carolina that precedes his deployment to Iraq and will not be able to vote. His absence leaves the possibility of a tie, which would mean the motion would fail.
Lance C. Miller, a Republican from Darlington, said he would not change his vote because "a handful of people are upset." Cecelia M. Stepp, a Republican from Havre de Grace who seconded Slutzky's amendment, did not return phone calls Friday.
Comprehensive rezoning takes place every eight years. Landowners can request zoning changes for their properties to allow them to conduct different functions or develop new structures.
Much of the consternation over this year's process has focused on requests to develop along the Route 22 corridor. At public meetings throughout the county, residents clad in yellow shirts and holding signs urged the council to stick with county recommendations to reject business development in their neighborhood.
"That is a very large block of ground that was given the highest density of retail business zoning," said Ned Sayre, 45, a farmer who lives in Churchville. "It's a big concern to us. I don't think there's any individual issue other than that one that has garnered as much interest."
Slutzky said he hoped that classifying the property as B3 - the highest density of business zoning - would give the property owners, the Ferrell family, the flexibility to contribute to a village atmosphere in Churchville, an idea seconded by attorney John Gessner, who represents the Ferrells.
Slutzky received $500 in contributions in August from the family requesting the change, though he told a local newspaper it did not affect his decision. Council members were barred from accepting contributions during the rezoning process, which started Nov. 1.
The council also passed amendments creating industrial districts in the largely rural northern portion of the county near the Pennsylvania line, in addition to the clustered upzoning in Whiteford already approved by planning and zoning. A 47-acre property on Box Hill South Parkway and Emmorton Road was granted business zoning and is expected to be the site of a shopping center.
If the rezoning measure is passed intact, Craig still has the option of vetoing the bill, though he said it would carry little weight. If the plan were sent back to the council, the result would likely be the same.
"It'd be an idle threat," he said.
But Chenowith's reversal had Gloria Moon, an organizer with the activist Friends of Harford, wondering why Craig doesn't have more faith in his ability to negotiate with the council.
"Their amendments went a lot further than what he says he wants," Moon said. "If he approves it, it's going to look bad for him."