Harford council hears public objections over proposed changes to development regulations

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A series of bills proposing changes to the Harford County’s zoning code and development regulations were criticized during County Council public hearings last week by some residents as nothing more than giveaways to developers.

Bills 18-033, 18-034, 18-035, 18-036, 18-037 and 18-038, as well as Resolution 012-18, which covers the fall 2018 updates to the county’s master waster and sewer plan, were not acted upon by the council at its legislative session immediately following the hearings Oct. 2; however, they could be voted upon as early as this Tuesday’s legislative session.

Mixed Office zone

Bill 18-033 covers changed to zoning code language that applies to mixed-office projects, which include commercial and residential development clustered around highway interchanges to promote local job growth.

This is the third time in eight years — spanning two county administrations — that changes have been proposed to this section of the zoning code. The previous two times were at the behest of developers of a large tract of land near Interstate 95 and Route 543 in the Creswell/Bel Air area.

Proposed changes this time include tweaks to the wording regarding a 75 percent limit on impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, in the project area, a requirement that at least 15 percent of the project be uses other than retail trade and residential, plus a change stating that no more than 45 percent of the “overall project,” rather than the “floor area,” can be used for residential.

“This particular section of this code has been revised a few times,” Planning and Zoning Director Bradley Killian told council members. “With the multitude of changes, there have been a few inconsistencies, and that is what the remainder of the changes resolve.”

Morita Bruce, co-president of the nonprofit land use watchdog group Friends of Harford, took issue, though.

She said the current language on the 45 percent floor area limitation for residential is clear. She questioned the meaning of 45 percent of a project area, and whether that takes parking areas, natural resource districts and stormwater management areas into account.

“We can believe deleting the words ‘floor area’ allows even more residences in the MO area than currently allowed, which we suspect is the intent of this bill,” Bruce said.

She stressed that the county’s zoning code states mixed-office districts are meant to create jobs, and “residences do not create jobs.”

Magnolia Overlay district

Much of the public’s ire, and ire from some council members, during the hearings was directed at Bill 18-034, which covers changes to development requirements to the Magnolia Neighborhood Overlay District in the Joppa area.

The overlay district was created by legislation, approved in December 2016 that took effect in February 2017, that was requested by owners of two large development properties between Route 40 and Trimble Road. Some area residents complained when the legislation was before the council that it did not provide enough protection to existing communities or streams and woodlands in the area.

The district was established to help spur residential development, combined with retail and and parks and recreation areas — within several hundred acres bounded by Route 40, Aberdeen Proving Ground’s Edgewood Area, Joppatowne and Edgewood east of Route 152.

The bill includes a revision to regulations that give developers the opportunity to opt out of regulations specific to the district. Their projects would then fall under provisions of the underlying zoning district, according to the bill.

“The effective change of this bill is to remove the mandate of projects greater than 20 acres from adhering to the overlay design guidelines, effectively making a project within that area optional,” Killian said.

Councilman Mike Perrone, who represents Joppa and Edgewood and was the only council member who voted against the original Magnolia Overlay legislation, immediately jumped in.

“I’ve got to ask, why?” he asked Killian, saying a provision to make something currently mandatory optional is “like a de facto repeal.”

Killian said neighborhood overlay districts currently exist in the county code in both “prescriptive” and “optional” forms.

“This bill was initially submitted as not being optional,” replied Perrone, who tried to get the council to consider amendments to the original legislation to give more community protections, but couldn’t get them to the floor for even a discussion.

He questioned why the county administration is moving to change the Magnolia district regulations less than two years after its creation. Perrone said he could understand making changes to a similar neighborhood overlay passed about 15 years ago to promote development in Edgewood, since little has happened in that time.

Perrone quoted statements Killian made at a Dec. 6, 2016 public hearing on the original legislation, when the director said Harford could capitalize on growth happening further west on Route 40 in Perry Hall and White Marsh and bring mixed-use projects to Magnolia.

He asked Killian if the demand for “mixed-housing projects, amenity-rich projects” has changed since December 2016.

Killian replied it has not changed, “not in my opinion.”

Perrone said that the same administration and council that passed MNOD legislation will now, “without explanation,” effectively repeal it.

“I guess that remains to be seen,” Killian said.

Six people from the Joppa area also expressed their opposition to the bill.

Bill Temmink objected to the administration seeking changes without “a clear rationale” and without consulting with the public first. Temmink, who used to live and work in Louisiana, used a local term for Bill 18-034, “mosquito legislation.”

He said people would go to backyard parties in Louisiana, have a good time and then see their bodies covered with red, itchy welts when they got home, welts presumably caused by mosquito bites even if they did not see the insects attack.

“One can only presume these changes are made at the request of a specific developer,” Temmink said.

Mixed reactions

There was also public opposition to Bills 18-035 and 18-036, but not to Bills 18-037 or 18-038.

- Bill 18-035 would reduce setbacks between commercial and club riding stables and residential lots from 200 to 50 feet. Bel Air-area resident John Mallamo compared the change to a developer “sending a dog whistle that they expect a yes vote.”

- Bill 18-036 replaces the county’s own definitions for intermittent and perennial streams with “the most recently accepted investigation methods” used by the Army Corps of Engineers to verify a stream’s status. Killian said it is “much more reliable” to lean on the science used by the Corps and the Maryland Department of the Environment to verify a type of stream.

Barbara Risacher, a Joppa resident and former county council member, said she found references to Corps data but they were “very confusing.”

“At this particular moment in the election period, why are we doing this now . . . I would just say, please be cautious with this,” Risacher said.

The elections for local, state and Congressional offices are Nov. 6, and voters will have their say on the next county executive, as well as who the next seven council members are, among others. Four of the seven council seats, including the council presidency, are open and will have new occupants come December, as the current members either ran for something else or decided to retire in the case of Council President Richard Slutzky.

- Bill 18-037 sets tax credits for owners of property near a landfill, an annual exercise for Harford County that is required by the state.

- Bill 18-038 adds surviving spouses of retired military members, who have not remarried, to the groups of people who qualify for a real property tax credit.

The latter bill mirrors an update to a state law that extends property tax credits to people who have occupied the same dwelling for at least 40 years or people who are 65 or older and are retired from the active-duty military, reserves or National Guard.

The County Council passed the initial local version of the state tax credit law in 2017, and it was signed by County Executive Barry Glassman last year. The five-year, 20 percent credit took effect July 1.

Treasurer Robert Sandlass told council members that about 3,000 people have received the credit so far, with the “overwhelming majority” being those who have lived in the same house for at least 40 years. About 10 percent of those who quality are retired military, Sandlass said.

“I’ve had nothing but good responses from the people that have been able to benefit from this,” Councilman Jim McMahan said.

He and Councilman Chad Shrodes said they have heard from citizens about possibly changing the law again to allow people who have lived in Harford County for at least 40 years, although not at the same residence, to qualify.

County Attorney Melissa Lambert said any changes would have to happen at the state level first, and then county leaders would “then come [to the council] with subsequent legislation to mirror that.”

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