Friends of Harford reminds the public of the power of the zoning code

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The HarfordNEXT master plan, passed in 2016, gives Harford County residents a general sense of how land in their communities can be developed in the coming years. But they need to go to the zoning code, if they want the best information, according to the Friends of Harford, a development watch dog group.

“The Friends of Harford sees the master plan as a general overview or picture, but truly to understand what could happen a citizen needs details — the details are in the zoning code,” co-president Stephanie Flasch said.

Flasch, co-president Morita Bruce and other Friends of Harford leaders provided the community an update on “What Could Happen NEXT,” with a focus on properties where the zoning was changed during the county’s 2017 comprehensive zoning process, during group’s annual meeting Sunday afternoon at the Abingdon Library.

The county goes through a comprehensive zoning review every eight years. The most recent, which involved 112 requests for rezoning, was approved by the Harford County Council in October 2017.

“We’re trying to answer what could happen next,” Flasch said, regarding zoning and how the permitted uses on a property could affect neighboring properties and infrastructure.

She said zoning districts “support the land-use designations that are within the master land use plan.”

“Ultimately, it is to promote the health, safety, morals and general welfare of the community,” Flasch said. “Exactly what can be done, and how and under what conditions, is dictated by the Harford County zoning code.”

About 35 to 40 people attended, Flash estimated. Many attendees were candidates running for county and state offices, including county executive, County Council and state delegate and senator.

Few incumbent elected officials attended, other than Councilman Mike Perrone, a Republican who is challenging incumbent Harford County Executive Barry Glassman in the June primary election. Lydia Brennan, legislative aide for Republican Councilman Curtis Beulah — he is seeking re-election — attended, too.

Friends of Harford, which was founded in 1997, is a volunteer-run watchdog group that provides information to citizens on the county’s land use and development process and issues positions on various development projects.

“The Friends of Harford’s goal is always to find a fair balance between the rights of those wanting to develop a property and the rights of the neighbors who might be impacted by that development,” Flasch said.

Members kept close tabs on the comprehensive zoning and issued a recommendation on each rezoning request. They visited each property at least once, according to Bruce.

“You really couldn’t tell what’s going on until you had boots on the ground out there,” Bruce said.

Flasch gave a short tutorial on the development process and how citizens can get involved. She encouraged people to “look for the white sign on the property,” the signs posted by county staff when a parcel is slated for development and indicating forums for public participation such as a community input or Development Advisory Committee meeting.

Flasch warned that “nothing can be done, unless it is an error or illegal,” for members of the public trying to stop a project.

Friends of Harford leaders and members discussed individual property rezonings in each of the county’s six councilmanic districts.

Board member Gloria Moon, who discussed District A, expressed relief that the R1 residential zoning for the 133-acre Foster’s Run subdivision between Dembytown Road and Trimble Road in Joppa had not been changed, despite the property owner’s request for R3 zoning.

Moon said Foster’s Run, which has not been built, was approved for 222 to 231 houses, dating to 2005. The developer of a subdivision on an adjacent property to the northwest has been approved for 271 houses, she said.

She said R3 zoning would have allowed hundreds more houses to be built in an area that could not support so much density.

Moon said the whole district is in the county’s development envelope, and “it should have development.”

“I think it should have had development after the roads were fixed, all the water and sewer, all the infrastructure,” she said.

The two tracts, which could have up to 500 houses built on them, are within the Magnolia Neighborhood Overlay District, established in 2016 between Route 40, the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Joppatowne and Route 152. County officials hope the overlay district, with more flexible regulations, will spur development in an area in need of new growth.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Magnolia overlay,” Moon said. “I don’t think anybody knows until a developer or a planner comes in.”

Flasch, who spoke on District B, said she is concerned about up-zoning that affects 33 acres between Route 147 and Route 1 in Fallston, just west of the Aumar Village shopping center at Route 152 and Route 1.

Friends of Harford recommended changing the zoning from agricultural to R1, rather than the more-intense R2 requested by Fallston developer Michael Euler Sr., Flasch said. The area had been included in the development envelope and designated for low-intensity use in HarfordNEXT.

She said R2 zoning might fit with surrounding properties that have similar zoning, but the land in question is adjacent to a farm that is protected through a state conservation easement.

Friends of Harford requested County Council amendments to counter Euler’s request last fall. District B Councilman Joe Woods was deployed to Florida with his employer, FEMA, for hurricane relief at the time, and no other council members made amendments on his behalf.

“We were very disappointed in the lack of interaction about the District B changes, and Friends of Harford hopes that the future development does reflect the nature of the rural community that it does encroach upon,” Flasch said.

Bill Onorato, FOH treasurer, talked about the ongoing development of the 152-acre former Eva-Mar farm off of Route 543, slightly north of the intersection with Route 22, for his District E presentation.

A continuing care retirement community, called Carsins Run at Eva Mar, will be built there, along with 144 single-family houses. The CCRC is expected to open to its first residents in 2020, and construction has already started on the houses. A traffic signal has also been installed at Route 543 and Sparta Court at the entrance to the community.

Onorato and hundreds of his fellow residents of the surrounding subdivisions fought the project, concerned about having such high-intensity use along a two-lane, heavily-traveled highway.

He said neighbors understood the farm would be developed after the couple who owned it died, but they did not expect a use as intense as a 514-unit CCRC.

He presented it as a cautionary tale, as the project was approved despite public opposition, but it still met permitted uses for that property in the zoning code.

“If the zoning code says it can be built, it can be built,” he said. “To heck with the master plan.”

Onorato urged audience members to “be diligent when you live next door to a big empty space.”

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