Mention zoning and most residents will likely zone out. Transfers of development rights, stream buffers and signage regulations often prove too tedious for the general public.
Still nearly 30 people attended the first of three public meetings on the draft zoning code at North Harford High School Wednesday evening. They studied color-coded maps, watched a video presentation on what has been a lengthy rewrite process, and asked questions of the county's planning staff.
"Zoning is a horribly boring topic," said Debby Marindin of White Hall. "But you have to go and have your say. I think officials listen. The county is really trying to include citizen input."
The public meetings are another step in the effort to rewrite a 25-year-old code. Already, a county-appointed work group has made suggestions for revisions and participated in workshops with the county council. Four advisory boards - agricultural, environmental, historic preservation and planning - have commented.
"During the public meetings, we are looking for all kinds of feedback, input, concerns and ideas," said Pete Gutwald, county director of planning. "These meetings help us see through another set of eyes. We are talking about a 400-page document that is 25 years old. It is outdated and has conflicts. We want to get it readable and understandable."
The rewrite and all the recommendations will eventually go before the council, which will likely add amendments, before a September public hearing on the code.
"About 90 percent of this rewrite is cleaning up language and organizing," said Council President Billy Boniface. "The workshops help explain what is new in the code. All of us are working on what we want to see and giving the law department a heads up on what amendments we would like."
Roman "Gene" Ratych, board member of the Greater Fallston Association, which is putting together a community response to the document, said much of the code remains unintelligible to the average person. Yet, it is critical to the quality of life throughout the county.
"Buried within the 400 pages of the new code are very key elements that will significantly affect the citizens of Harford County," Ratych said. "Those elements are not apparent to citizens."
Of great concern, he said, are water source protections, which do not include private wells, proposed construction that will be outside the county's long standing development envelope and a proposal to lift moratoriums in crowded school areas after five years and redistrict students to less crowded schools.
"Then they can build again," Ratych said. "What sense does that make?"
Councilman Dion Guthrie, who represents the Edgewood and Joppa areas, where much high-density housing already exists, said redistricting is not a solution. He is pushing for larger schools to ease the crowding.
"You can't build houses first and then schools," he said.
Sam Keller of Norrisville spent much of the two-hour meeting reading through a nine-page summary before commenting. He was most concerned about a split-zoning proposal for the agricultural district that might allow businesses to use neighboring farmland for additional water and sewer.
"We fought that idea five years ago and won," he said. "I don't want to see it come back."
Councilman Richard Slutzky said a lack of access to water and sewer renders some property unusable under current zoning.
"We are looking at better design ability and environmental improvements," Slutzky said. "It makes sense to consider some of these changes."
Bill Nicodemus, a Jarrettsville resident since 1973, hoped "to see the whole picture" before making a comment. If farmers in northern Harford transfer their development rights to projects in other more populated areas, he wants to know where that will be and how that will work, he said.
"I am living in a rural residential area and I'm in good shape to keep it that way," he said. "But I am concerned with what else is going on."
Given the scope of the work and the impact on future development, Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said the rewrite will require much compromise and diverse input.
"The county is committed to listening to the public on these issues," she said.
The Fallston group is working on a Web site, which includes photographs that show the effects of poor zoning.
"I want this code to be good," Ratych said. "We can do it better."
The next meeting on the zoning code will be at 6:30 p.m. July 10 at Joppatowne High School, 555 Joppa Farm Road. Information: 410-638-3103.