Harford County officials are betting their recent creation of a special zoning overlay district will spur development around one of the oldest communities in the county's western Route 40 area.
But many residents of the Joppa area, while semi-supportive of the concept, are still wary the Magnolia Neighborhood Overlay District, being called MNOD for short, will achieve its lofty goal of fostering so-called traditional neighborhoods with mixes of housing types interspersed with walking trails, pocket parks and commercial enterprises that cater mainly to residents' needs.
County planners say as many as 900 homes could be developed under the overlay district's more flexible – critics suggest permissive – zoning, about the same number that might have been developed without the overlay district.
The area is question covers several hundred acres, the majority of them covered with trees or former sand mining pits, between Route 40 on the north and the Aberdeen Proving Ground/Edgewood Area border on the south, with Joppatowne to the west and Route 152 and Edgewood to the west.
Splitting the northern two-thirds of the area is the historic predominantly African-American community of Dembytown. The overlay district also is home to neighboring Magnolia Elementary and Magnolia Middle schools.
Trimble Road, which winds through area from east to west is its main point of access, one of the chief areas of concerns among area residents who unsuccessfully pushed the county to require developers to make a direct connection to Route 40.
Magnolia sits between two of Harford's most densely developed communities, Joppatowne and Edgewood. The area has long been considered a primary target for any area that county officials and residents concede is need of some redevelopment. The question is just how much?
The Harford County Council approved legislation creating the overlay district on Dec. 13 and it has since been signed into law by County Executive Barry Glassman, whose administration sponsored it and pushed hard for enactment, according to several council sources.
The council vote was 5-1 with one member absent. The single "no" vote came from Councilman Mike Perrone, who represents Joppatowne and Edgewood, including the overlay district area.
Prior to approving the overlay bill, a dozen amendments sponsored by Perrone to tighten up controls on future development failed to get a second from among the other council members. Perrone has declined to speculate why they weren't even given the courtesy of a discussion, but he was also the only council member who voted against legislation raising the pay of future council members that was adopted earlier this year.
During a 90-minute public hearing on the overlay legislation held Dec. 6, six speakers – including two former council members who represented the area – said they were in favor of it provided some of the amendments proposed by Perrone and other council members were included.
Five spoke in favor of the legislation as introduced – including a lawyer representing two of the area's largest property owners and the head of the county's Economic Development Advisory Board, and four spoke in opposition, including three residents of the immediate neighborhood and a representative of the Gunpowder Riverkeeper organization.
County Planning Director Bradley Killian, whose department crafted the overlay district, said it dovetails with the HarfordNEXT master plan that was enacted by the council over the summer; however, critics have questioned why the overlay district legislation was rushed to passage in the weeks before the county opened the application process for a comprehensive zoning review in mid-December.
Killian said the new district is designed to spur the kind of sustainable development needed to boost Harford's economy, but he also conceded a similar overlay district approved a number of years ago for Edgewood, during a previous county administration, never took hold.
Two large tracts in the overlay district were approved for single family housing in the early 2000s, but never got off the ground because of the recession, according to Bel Air lawyer Brad Stover, whose firm represents the owners; one property is controlled by Richard Crouse, the other by Joesph Salvo.
Stover said the overlay district will hopefully lead to new owners taking over the properties and then developing them to the new standards contained in the legislation.
According to Stover, the two developments in question would have produced about 500 homes; the overlay district would permit about 600 dwellings of different types on those properties, he said.
Perrone said one of his biggest concerns with the overlay district, and development of the area in general, is the potential damage to Foster Branch, a stream running across the area which feeds into the Gunpowder River. The failure by his colleagues to agree to require future developers to build a direct access to Route 40 is another major shortcoming, he said.