A bill has been narrowly approved by the Harford County Council which is designed to expedite development on the James Run site at I-95 and Route 543, in the Creswell area between Bel Air and Riverside.
Harford County Council members had a tense debate but ultimately voted 4 to 3 Tuesday night to change the wording in the zoning code for the MO, or Mixed Office classification, to allow "retail, recreational, hotel, residential and service" as principal uses, but with more retail as opposed to residential.
The 111-acre James Run property is the largest of just a handful of properties with the MO classification. The site was formerly a small public golf course and swimming pool called Bren-Mar Park, which closed a decade ago.
Originally to be known as the James Run Corporate Campus, the proposed development's plan started out as an office park geared to attracting defense contractors that were expected to rush into Harford in the wake of the federal base realignment process, also known as BRAC, that benefited nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground in the last decade.
Before the project got going, however, the county experienced a boom in office construction that far outstripped the expected BRAC-generated demand. In 2011-12, the lawyer for the property owner, a limited liability company, requested an amendment to the MO zoning classification that would permit apartment-like temporary housing as a principal use, the idea being to gear development to housing defense contractors who are assigned to the area on a month-to-year basis. The change was made by a previous County Council, but the project still never got going.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, in office since last December, proposed the latest change to permit more retail uses on MO zoned properties, calling it an important part of his economic development vision for the county. Glassman said recently he hoped the MO change would get the James Run development moving, explaining that the county needed to provide more flexibility of uses for such a large tract near a major interchange on I-95.
But some community leaders and land use control advocates opposed the change, which they criticized in part for putting the cart before the horse, when Glassman has already launched a wholesale review and update of the county's Master Land Use Plan, to be followed by a comprehensive rezoning process for the whole county.
Council members said Tuesday they spent many hours and long nights debating whether to push forward development at the James Run site, as requested, or to consider the site in the context of the entire county, under Glassman's so-called HarfordNEXT review process.
The council was equally divided in approving six amendments Tuesday aimed at reducing residential development permitted on MO sites in favor of uses such as retail and service development.
All six amendments were ultimately approved, cutting the amount of residential building permitted from 55 percent of the building square footage to 45 percent. Other amendments increased the amount of retail and service uses permitted from 35 percent to 40 percent of the project area
Council members Mike Perrone, Joe Woods and Chad Shrodes voted against the amended bill, Woods, even though he was a co-sponsor of the amendments.
Perrone said he was "uncomfortable" with increasing retail space as "a meaningful substitute" to office buildings.
"I don't think we should make changes to the zoning code just because one particular project is not viable," Perrone said, adding he agreed with many of the concerns he heard from constituents that the issue should be dealt with in the master plan process and that waiting a few months isn't "going to hurt anyone."
Councilman Curtis Beulah, however, said the council had spent "countless hours" debating the bill and noted the original goal of MO zoning was to provide an economic engine for the county.
Beulah, whose council district includes the James Run site, said he has been in financial services for 28 years and seen tough economic times. He has also heard from plenty of advisors that those difficult times seem likely to continue.
"I see that we are going to be in this stagnant position, as far as the economy's concerned, for probably a number of years," Beulah said.
Approving the bill – and assuming the expected development of the site follows, he said, "will provide a significant source of revenue for the treasury of Harford County."
Councilman Pat Vincenti said constituents have asked the council not to expand the county's designated growth area, known locally as the development envelope, but indeed, we need some kind of growth to continue."
"It just makes sense that it may not technically be in a development envelope but it has been identified as a zoned property to build," Vincenti said.
Shrodes, meanwhile, got backlash from Councilman Jim McMahan and Beulah for arguing that "good planning, not politics, should guide our county's decision."
Shrodes said the bill "should be viewed as a rezoning," not just an resetting of uses permitted in the mixed office designation, pointing out the changes would allow "big box" stores, something he and other council members have said should be subject to closer scrutiny.
"Just look at the controversy of the Walmart that had been proposed on [Route] 924," Shrodes said before agreeing with Perrone that "anything of this magnitude should only be made" with consideration of the entire county.
"I don't make any decisions up here for political purposes," McMahan retorted.
McMahan said development of the James Run site has been proposed since 1992 and was identified as a spot for intense development.
"We are talking about the commercial economic engine," McMahan said.
Woods acknowledged the difficulty of the decision, explaining his struggle about the vote.
"I have been all over the place with this thing," he said, but added: "I still believe that it does need to be part of HarfordNEXT."
He called the amendments "an outstanding approach" but said he was worried about what happens after the county gets into the HarfordNEXT process and comprehensive rezoning.
"It's hard to go with [this bill] when we are sitting here constantly telling everyone, 'We want your input for HarfordNEXT,'" Woods said.
Vincenti said he is concerned about what may happen in the future, as one of Harford's biggest assets is its "rural heritage," and, as a Churchville resident, he wants to protect that and limit increased traffic.
"I know that anything that happens after this has to come before the council and I assure you we will be looking at it with a magnifying glass," Vincenti said.
Morita Bruce, president of Friends of Harford, a local group that advocates for policies and actions for responsible land use, tried to criticize the vote during the public comment period of the council meeting but Council President Richard Slutzky stopped her, saying comment on a bill that was just passed is not allowed until the next meeting, which will be Jan. 5.
After the meeting, Bruce said "the process really cut the public out of it," regarding the council's vote.
"It seems like sometimes there is a deliberate effort to discourage public participation," she said.