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Group homes again drawing concern in Bel Air

The Town of Bel Air has 13 group homes, and five of them are within a two-block radius near Broadway and Franklin Streets, creating a "community killer," one resident said Monday.

A sixth group home in the same area set to open soon will bring the total in town to 14, Rob Hruz, who lives in the first block of East Broadway, told Bel Air town commissioners at their meeting Monday night.

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Hruz reiterated his opposition to the proliferation and concentration of those types of facilities – most of them for people recovering from drug and/or alcohol addictions – in a small area. He made similar comments to the commissioners two weeks earlier.

"We oppose the consolidation of group homes," Hruz told four of the five the commissioners. Commissioner Dave Carey was not at Monday's meeting.

Hruz also introduced the Mears family, new to Broadway, with four children, ages 5 and younger, who didn't know about the group homes when they bought their house.

The homes, he said, are run by Maryland Recovery Partners, which has an office in Bel Air, but they are a "community killer," he said.

The group homes are good places for people with recovery problems to get the help they need, Hruz said after the meeting, but "I'm not so sure they should be next to a family with young children."

There are 14 single-family homes in the small area where he lives, Hruz said, and six of them are occupied by group homes, with a maximum of eight residents per home.

"There's more of them than us, every day, working, taxpaying residents," he said. "They are consolidating them at what expense? It's creating problems for others."

The town considered zoning changes a few years ago that were designed to stop the proliferation of group homes, but officials later backed away from the effort after lawyers for group home operators threatened federal lawsuits that would have likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend, with no guarantee the town would prevail.

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Jamin Mears, who lives in the first block of East Broadway with his wife and their four children, said he is "very excited to be here in Bel Air," but he's concerned about the group homes, too.

"There are some risks involved" in living close to those types of homes," he said, telling the commissioners he agrees with Hruz.

Deborah Cassilly suggested the commissioners take a walk through the Franklin Street/Broadway area and see what it's like.

"Get a feel for the area and what's moving in," Cassilly, the wife of former town commissioner and former Harford County Councilman Bob Cassilly, said. "It would really make more of an impression to see what the neighborhood is comprised of."

Mayor Ed Hopkins told Hruz and Mears the issue is being reviewed "very carefully."

"It's not as easy at it appears," Hopkins said, adding he rode through the area recently. He told the residents their comments were not "going unheeded."

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After the meeting, Hopkins said the town is looking into the suggestions of Hruz and others, but it is also limited in what it can do because of federal regulations.

"We are very sympathetic, but we have to tread carefully," Hopkins said.

Changes in zoning or densities could be a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, he explained.

"Any move we make, we want it to be well thought out," Hopkins said. "But we do understand what the residents are saying."

Other town business

Katelyn O'Connor, a student at St. Margaret School, was presented a certificate of recognition as a finalist in the "If I Were Mayor" Mayor's Essay Contest.

If she were mayor for a day, she "could face challenges head on," Katelyn said, reading her essay.

She would make sure the town did environmentally friendly things, which would be "harder than having to make my brother eat vegetables. And believe me, that's hard."

She would also try to tackle obesity by having more gyms, and they would run on solar power. And the first class would be free, because those are two problems – there are no local gyms or they are too expensive, she said.

She would also have more government meetings, every week, she suggested, and they would be earlier in the day so children can go to them.

"My town would be the best town ever," Katelyn added.

Becca DiRocco, of Harford Day School, and Austin Markley, of John Carroll School, were recognized with student achievement awards.

Becca, an eighth-grader, has an "admirable work ethic" and a "cheerful, positive, helpful attitude," according to the proclamation presented to her. She balances her academic studies with her competitive figure skating at the University of Delaware skating rink.

Austin, a junior, is a "young man of talent and integrity," according to the proclamation presented to him. He is well-liked, respected and "always goes out of his way to help others." He excels in academic challenges and "shines as an athlete" on the football field and track.

Deborah Haney was reappointed to a three-year term on the Economic Community Development Commission.

"She has been involved in the community for many years and we look forward to another three," Commissioner Rob Reier said.

Stephanie Meadowcroft was recognized as Miss Bel Air Independence Day 2012. Meadowcroft is an 18-year-old senior at John Carroll, who will be attending New York University in the fall, but not before representing Bel Air at all the town's July 4th activities this summer.

Also recognized at Monday's meeting were vendors, who have been with the Bel Air Farmers Market for 25 years or longer, including Stan Kollar, of Kollar Nurseries, Don Kirk, of Kirk's Farm, Art Johnson, of Sweetaire Farm and Wilson Farm Market.

The market was started 37 years ago by the Economic Community Development Commission to promote patronage in the downtown area, Reier said.

The board of the farmers market, he said, has provided fresh local options and created a strong relationship between farms and the community.

The Saturday morning market, held from April through October, in the Risteau State Office Building Parking lot, is consistently well attended by the public.

Upcoming events

The Favorites will perform May 11 and the Jules James on May 18 from noon to 1 p.m. as part of the Friday lunchtime concerts on Office Street.

A showcase of the Maryland Conservatory of Music's students will be May 12 at 2 p.m. at the Bel Air Reckord Armory.

The Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra will perform at the Bel Air Middle School Auditorium May 19 at 7:30 p.m. Call 410-569-2602 for tickets.

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