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Jay Young

A Major Glitch Along the Way

Harford Business Ledger: July 2006

This issue of the Harford Business Ledger focuses on development and construction issues. Well, here's a major one -- it now appears fairly certain that the 2006 Comprehensive Rezoning legislation is dead.

It is important to understand the significance and the implications of this event. The failure of the comprehensive rezoning process will have a broad and powerful impact on Harford County development for years to come. Considering it in light of the ticking BRAC clock, the implications are even more significant. In addition, because of the failure of the two-year-long comprehensive rezoning effort, there are likely to be as many as hundreds of piecemeal zoning cases processed through the system over the next several years.

The Harford County Charter requires that every eight years the County conduct a comprehensive review of its Master Land Use Plan and conduct comprehensive rezoning that adjusts the zoning of properties to be consistent with that Plan. This allows the County to comprehensively address changes in land use trends and market realities.

For example, in the not-so-distant past, Harford County's economy was agriculturally driven. In order to accommodate the processing of agricultural products, general industrial zones were established in places like Whiteford and Hickory, where mills and other agricultural facilities were located. With innovations in farming practices, those facilities are no longer necessary. In addition, nowadays it's more appropriate to site most general industrial facilities near transportation arteries such as I-95 and the railroads. It is therefore no longer necessary to have general industrial zoning in Whiteford or Hickory -- in fact, if you review the uses allowed in the general industrial zone, it would now be highly objectionable to have those uses located in Hickory or Whiteford! So that zoning would be appropriate to modify as part of Comprehensive Rezoning.

Another example of a trend which might require modifications to a Land Use Plan is the condominium. Not that long ago there were no condominiums in Harford County at all, but now, evolution of the market and the suburbanization of the County have produced a high demand for them. This must be reflected in the Land Use Plan, and so the comprehensive rezoning process is where this change should be recognized and accommodated.

The process begins with review by planners on the Staff of the Department of Planning and Zoning; public informational meetings are held; legislation is developed and public hearings are conducted by the County Council; the plan is coordinated with other comprehensive plans for transportation and the infrastructure. Finally, the new comprehensive Master Land Use Plan is passed as legislation -- it denotes areas of high, medium and low intensity for residential development, areas appropriate for commercial and/or industrial development, and areas within which no development is appropriate (and agriculture preserved thereby).

Once the legislation is passed, the actual zoning of particular parcels must be adjusted to bring them into conformity with the Master Land Use Plan. Once again, that process is initiated by the Staff, meetings are conducted, legislation developed and introduced and hearings conducted on the legislation. Individual landowners of particular parcels can submit applications to have their properties rezoned.

The process seemed to be going along smoothly until, during the public hearing process phase, two or three legislative recommendations were so vociferously opposed by citizens that threats were made to petition the entire process to referendum. The entire legislation was then vetoed by the County Executive, apparently hoping that new, contention-free legislation could be drafted But that new legislation has never been finalized, and no other legislation has been introduced or is pending. It therefore appears that the two-and-a-half year comprehensive rezoning process will simply die with no comprehensive rezoning of the County.

The implications of the failure of the comprehensive rezoning process are significant. Our government officials have made representations and promises to federal and state officials that we will have the residential and commercial inventory of properties available to accommodate the BRAC initiative. Any advance toward that goal which may have been achieved by the comprehensive rezoning has been lost.

In addition, there were 183 properties in the process which were but one signature away from being rezoned. Those 183 rezonings were correctly applied for and analyzed, supported by the Planning Staff and experts, and subjected to the legal process mandated by our laws. Without comprehensive rezoning, the only other avenue available for the owners of those properties is the so-called "piece-meal" process, wherein each property owner files a separate zoning case, and, among other requirements, must prove that there has been a substantial change in the neighborhood of the property from the time of the last comprehensive rezoning, or that a mistake of law was made in the last comprehensive rezoning. These can be significant burdens to overcome!

You will, no doubt, read lots of stories over the next several years of the onslaught of these piece-meal rezoning cases. If all 183 properties that would have been rezoned via the comprehensive process file for a piece-meal rezoning, that will be a lot of cases tying up lawyers, expert witnesses, the staff of the Department of Planning and Zoning and the Hearing Examiner's office. It will all take an extended period of time and burden the system with a tremendous expenditure of resources. And it all could have been avoided.

I hope this article brings a better understanding of the zoning process that has just been concluded and about the next one about to be embarked upon.

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