BRAC land-use panel is faulted

The Baltimore Sun

A commission studying how major growth at Aberdeen Proving Ground will affect Harford County land use was top-heavy with development-related members and did not have sufficient community input, an activist group contended last week after the panel released its first report.

In a letter sent last week to Harford County Executive David R. Craig, the group, Friends of Harford, said it "stood alone" on a subcommittee formed to examine Harford's readiness for growth. The 15-member subcommittee was chaired by an attorney for a prominent development law firm - the only subcommittee not headed by a government official - and featured presentations by homebuilders, Realtors and developers.

"We suggest that the committee membership has no [additional] citizens independent of the development community and others with a vested financial interest in expansion," wrote Friends of Harford President Judy Blomquist.

Members of the BRAC Planning and Advisory Commission cautioned that the group's work was preliminary, and that the community would be able to weigh in through town hall meetings and as specific plans begin to take shape. They also noted that the group's concerns had not been expressed until last week's letter.

"The whole purpose was to engage everybody in the discussion, and Friends of Harford was included for that very reason," said J. Thomas Sadowski, the commission's chair and a vice president of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. "We made sure everybody had a voice and all issues were discussed."

But the notion that the slate of government officials who sat on the committee and made presentations were not representing community interests points to distrust among activists over the influence wielded by developers. The county's treasurer, attorney, and public works, planning and zoning, housing, and parks and recreations directors all sat on the committee, and planning and zoning officials made presentations.

"I would think you need some that are not involved in the government processes, because the people working in government processes have been working with the developers," Blomquist said in an interview. "It doesn't mean they are biased. ... But maybe they should see their responsibility slightly differently than they have in the past."

The advisory commission, formed by Craig in November, set out to identify needs and make recommendations on how the county can prepare for an expected 30,000 jobs relocating to the region over the next decade as a result of the military's Base Realignment and Closure process. Craig said its initial mission was information gathering, not to make recommendations. Craig could not be reached for comment on the Friends of Harford letter.

The commission was broken into four subcommittees, with a land-use committee chaired by Eric P. McLauchlin, an attorney with the law firm of Gessner, Snee, Mahoney & Lutsche, which represents many local developers on high-profile projects. The county sheriff headed the public safety group; the public works director chaired the infrastructure group, and the president of Harford Community College chaired the education and work force group.

Also sitting on the land-use panel were Richard Streett, a veterinarian and developer, and David Galbreath of Whiteford-based Delta Lumber Inc. Galbreath was listed as a "citizen."

Presentations were made by the president of the Harford Realtors Association, the past president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, and representatives from several development companies, including RKS Realty, and Trammell Crow.

"It seemed to me that, at least in my small dealings with the group, that the discussion was not slanted, and that a variety of interests were represented," said Joseph M. Cronyn, a real estate consultant who made a presentation to the group on the relationship between job growth and housing.

Blomquist agreed, calling it a "very civil committee." But she found its final report troubling - it suggested that the group had decided that development opportunities should occur throughout the county and not just the U.S. 40 corridor, where Craig has said development should focus. She said meeting minutes would show that the discussion reflected the opposite.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said her organization has been hosting workshops on the state's long-term growth that have featured equal, one-third representation from business, government and civic groups. She said Harford should follow that model in future discussions, if it seeks comprehensive planning solutions.

"With the incredibly complicated, critical and time-sensitive issues around BRAC, it doesn't do any good whatsoever not to have a robust and inclusive conversation," said Schmidt-Perkins. "If you're going to accommodate this extraordinary amount of development over a very short time, we need all hands on deck."

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