Zoning code nears

The Baltimore Sun

A heavily amended zoning code appears likely to win the Harford County Council's approval Tuesday when it is scheduled for a vote.

The seven-member panel added 136 amendments to the 800-page draft that was nearly two years in the writing and the subject of numerous workshops and public hearings. It was early Wednesday before the council had voted on all the changes.

"The code is likely to pass because all of us understand the need to move forward on the issues," said Council President Billy Boniface. "We all worked on the big issues and tried to come up with something all of us could support. There were a lot of compromises, but we have put good proposals in place."

Council sessions typically begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and a brief prayer. Boniface substituted the prayer with an adage that ended with: "If you never take a chance in life, surely nothing will happen."

Most amendments won unanimous approval. While many were considered housekeeping efforts, a few were contentious. A last-minute effort by Councilman Dion F. Guthrie and Councilwoman Veronica L. Chenowith to table the proposed transfer of development rights failed by a 5-to-2 vote. The transfer of development rights allows farmers to sell their rights to building lots to developers in established growth areas.

Guthrie, who said he favors the program, called for appointing a committee to hammer out a better TDR.

"I want to bring back a program that we can all deal with," said Guthrie, who represents the southern area of the county.

Chenowith, who represents the Fallston area, called the proposal inequitable to residents in the southern end of the county, where the transferred rights would spur more residential construction.

"I don't find TDRs beneficial to the average citizen," Chenowith said. "The southern end of the county has supported the lifestyle of the northern end. The code asks for TDRs from privileged areas in the north to five infill areas. What happens when those areas are filled?"

But Boniface, who owns a horse farm in Havre de Grace, said the program "has already been studied and task-forced for years without an opportunity to work" and urged the council to act immediately.

"No TDR program is perfect," he said. "Even the most successful ones are constantly changing."

With state and county preservation funds drying up and with the transfer tax, which has for long been the source of funding to safeguard farmland from development, dropping in the weakened housing market, TDRs might emerge as the most viable land preservation tool available, he said.

Boniface successfully pushed for an increased ratio that will allow a developer two building lots for every TDR purchased.

"If anything, this program is more beneficial to taxpayers," Boniface said. "TDRs allow the market to take care of preservation."

The amendments also strengthened sign regulations, environmental safeguards and the county's forestation and landscaping plans.

Councilman James V. McMahan drafted a change that would ensure a resident's right to appeal a zoning decision.

"This is a basic right of all people to understand the process and appeal the planning director's decision," McMahan said.

The amendment won unanimous support and most council members asked that their own names be added to it.

"Now there is one for the good guys," said Gloria Moon, a member of the Friends of Harford, a watchdog group that has at times been critical of the county's land-use policies. "But I think a lot of this code and these amendments still need amendments. We will be studying all of this."

Sally LaBarre, president of the Friends of Harford, said she appreciated all the work that has gone into rewriting the code for the first time in more than 25 years.

"It seems we are headed in the right direction," LaBarre said. "This is a living document and it will continue to change, but we are getting there."

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