You snooze – you lose, and most of us snooze through anything about Harford’s Zoning Code. The rude wake-up call occurs when you learn your home or neighborhood is about to be harmed because of what is – or equally important, what isn’t – in the zoning code.
Why does the zoning code matter?
A zoning code determines what can be built where, and under what conditions. It’s supposed to protect our properties, quality of life, and environment.
Why do we even need one? As our population grows, we end up living and working closer together. At some point, what a person does on HIS private property starts to affect nearby property owners’ ability to use and enjoy THEIR properties. If you think a zoning code is unnecessary, imagine an adult book store or garbage dump being built next to your home.
The County Executive’s Department of Planning and Zoning rewrote Harford’s zoning code. Some residents hoped it would include new concepts that have worked well elsewhere. These improvements could protect property values by enhancing quality of life within built-up areas, encourage new smart-growth developments, support redevelopment of older areas, protect our farms, and discourage costly sprawl.
It’s also very important that our revised zoning code fix the development process so nearby residents no longer need to panic when they see a rezoning notice. Residents fight change because of what can REALLY happen under today’s code, and because citizens have no say in what happens after rezoning is granted. This panic also hurts good developers who are unfairly targeted even when presenting excellent projects in good faith. Residents know the good guy can change his mind, or the property – with it’s new zoning – can fall into other hands.
These are the reasons why a truly new zoning code is needed in Harford.
What happened to the new zoning code?
We aren’t getting one.
New ideas were ignored. Instead, in creating Planning & Zoning’s May 2007 Draft Zoning Code, the outdated code was tinkered with (including some crucial word changes), then reshuffled so that not even the authors can show you exactly what changed. In my experience, when people do a good job, they are proud to point out exactly what they did. Instead, Planning & Zoning refused to identify all their changes, forcing citizens and County Council representatives to play hide-and-seek through 750+ pages to figure out what happened. I get very suspicious when government hides what they’re doing, because there’s usually a reason – a reason I won’t like.
This draft code contains some good changes and some very bad changes. Their May 2007 Draft was then turned over to the Zoning Code Update Work Group. Work Group members were invited to recommend additional changes.
Didn’t the Zoning Code Update Work Group represent residents?
The County Executive appointed a mix of organizations to the Work Group, not the individual members. However, most of the individuals able to attend twenty-two Monday-afternoon meetings spread over 10 months turned out to be employed by the development industry. Nor were backups or substitutes allowed. This was a good idea ruined by reality.
Observing the Work Group in action was like watching a slow-motion train wreck. The only unknown was just how bad it would be. The independent facilitator hired to run the meetings did not. Instead, the Director of Planning & Zoning took over and ran all meetings. Work Group recommendations were based on unrecorded votes, with the majority of voters supporting their employers. There was no attempt at consensus.
The County Executive’s office also actively solicited recommendations from Harford’s various Advisory Boards, such as the Environmental Advisory Board, Development Advisory Board and Historical Advisory Boards. Board comments plus Work Group recommendations were considered for inclusion in the final legislation (i.e. a replacement zoning code submitted to the County Council for approval).
What happened next?
Thanks to the volunteer spirit for which America is famous, there is some good news. A citizen volunteer compared the current code to the May 2007 draft code to document all changes. It was a grueling, time-consuming exercise, but this dedicated citizen accomplished what the Executive Branch refused to do. Another citizen supplied the missing table of contents for the draft code.
These citizens are members of Friends of Harford (FOH), and you can view their work and others’ on website http://www.friendsofharford.com/. Click on Zoning Code Update (on left), then “FOH ZONING CODE MARKUP”. The markup points out both the changes in the code and FOH’s comments on the changes. FOH was one of the few citizen representatives on the Workgroup and they provided written comments on all sections of the draft code.
After Workgroup meetings ended, yet another citizen group volunteered to summarize the most important things that need to be fixed before a “new” code is approved. Their 58-page report is on http://www.communityresponsetothezoningcode.com/. For an extremely quick view of the most important issues, look at this website’s 22-question survey form. The questions cover key issues, with each question linked to further information.
On August 19th, the new zoning code will be revealed for the first time, presented as legislation for approval by the County Council. This starts a 45-day countdown. If the legislation, including any amendments, is not approved within 45 days, the new zoning code dies. This is an extremely short time for the Council to find and disarm the bombs within, let alone try to upgrade the code for the 21st century.
Citizen volunteers will again try to help. They will be working furiously to learn what exactly is in the final legislation. They will have to discover the remaining problems from the May 2007 draft, the recommendations that may have been accepted from the Work Group, the impacts of comments from the Boards, and changes from other sources that could be in the legislation.
“Go do your homework” is a hard thing to say on a beautiful summer day. But please take time to find out what’s happening. Do you care that the legislation may take away citizen rights, discourage redevelopment, support the destruction of farmland, and encourage development in environmentally sensitive areas? If so, then be prepared to speak up (3-minute maximum per person) at the County Council hearings scheduled for September 16 and 23. It’s now up to our County Council to decide what Harford’s final zoning code will say.
Remember, you snooze – you lose.