By Dave Yensan
On Monday, August 12th, the Aberdeen City Council voted to impose “draconian” standards for future townhouse development. The Planning and Zoning Commission began working on this ordinance in late 2006, but was told that it would not get past the City Council as the three needed votes would not be there.
After the 2007 elections Ms. Grover, Director of Planning and Zoning resurrected the ordinance and pressed it through the system until it finally came to a vote this Monday. During the last session, Mayor Simmons, Council President Hiob and myself, Councilman Yensan, all expressed that they had serious objections to the bill and caused it to be withdrawn. The only current Councilmember who spoke out against this version was Mike Hiob. The Mayor, to his credit, also spoke out against most provisions of the bill, but this had not been made public prior to the meeting on Monday.
The full text of Ordinance NO. 08-2 “Amendment To The Development Code, Chapter 142, Code Of The City Of Aberdeen” is too lengthy to include in this report but should be available on the Aberdeen web site. In all there are 15 code changes, which apply to townhouses only. They are:
1. Designating minimum lot widths and square footage
2. Maximum height
3. Number of dwellings
4. End unit side and front yard requirements
5. Prohibiting accessory buildings in excess of 120 square feet
6. Minimum size for a garage if provided
7. Requirement for off-street parking in front or rear yard
8. Developments to be connected by walking, and biking trails and roads “to the extent possible”
9. A requirement that a minimum of 20% of development property be designated for recreation.
10. Specific landscaping requirements as to size and girth of trees, etc.
11. That the City Department of Planning and Community Development approve the overall landscape plan
12. That “green construction shall be incorporated to the greatest extent feasible in the townhouse construction and development with a focus on energy and efficiency.”
13. Appearance requirements:
– Quality of construction to ensure that the buildings will not look worn
– 85% of the exterior facing the street be of masonry, brick, stone etc.
– Exterior of buildings be compatible with material and colors of nearby buildings.
At the meeting Mr. Hiob objected to 4 of the 15 provisions and Mrs. Young requested that two more be added. Mr. Hiob wanted to change the width requirement from 24’ homes with 28’ end units to all units be a minimum of 24’ wide. (This is an increase from the current 20’ requirement, the widest in the County.)
His second amendment addressed the same issue. His third amendment was to eliminate requirement 12 in its entirety. His fourth amendment was to eliminate the requirement for masonry type veneers on the front of all buildings. Mrs. Young’s first amendment was offered to require masonry construction for the wall between all units and her second amendment would require that the architectural review committee approve all plans.
Mr. Hiob entered his first amendment as a motion and the other four members of the Council pretended to be deaf mutes. Finally, Mr. Kupferman seconded the motion “to allow for discussion. Mr. Hiob explained that he had researched codes for the other two municipalities in Harford County as well as all of them in Cecil County and the two County Codes. He reported that all of the other municipalities and the two Counties required 18’ minimum widths, if any at all. He explained that the 28-foot end unit width would make the units cost prohibitive. He also pointed out that a person could build a 15’ wide house in Aberdeen without any problem.
Ruth Ann Young countered that single-family home standards just simply had not come up yet. She elaborated by telling that she and her husband had visited friends in a 28-foot wide town house and she found it to “be quite lovely.” Mayor Bennett explained that he had objected, some time ago, to the 28-foot requirement.
The vote was 3 to 2 against the amendment with Hiob and Bennett voting in favor.
The second amendment was made and failed for a second. In as much as it further clarified the 28-foot end units it was pretty much a done deal after the first failed.
The third amendment was brought to a motion and seconded by the Mayor. Mr. Hiob explained that there is no standard offered for what constitutes a “green building.” A member of the development community pointed out that the only certified inspector for this type of construction is in Pennsylvania. Mr. Hiob also pointed out that the words “greatest extent possible” are very nebulous. He asked who would determine whether the builder had met the “extent possible.”
I note here that with Aberdeen’s horrible history of abusing the development community and the favoritism and retaliatory efforts toward others, would really make this a dangerous provision.
Mr. Hiob typified this green wording as “feel good” only. Mrs. Young retaliated that she thinks this should be left in and it would “do good.” Her answer lacked any logic or coherent thought at all.
The Council President said, “I think it’s a good thing.” As usual the Council President made absolutely no sense.
The amendment passed 3 to 2 with Elliott and Young voting against removing the nebulous green language.
Mike then introduced the amendment to remove the requirement for expensive masonry fronts. The Mayor seconded the motion. Once again Mr. Hiob provided facts and figures to remove this onerous provision. Mrs. Young said that she thinks this provision “provides nice variety.” She further said, “over time the brick or masonry facades will “prove to be valuable.” All four of her fellow Council members looked very confused by this comment. The amendment failed 3 to 2 with Bennett and Hiob voting in the affirmative.
Councilwoman Young introduced and the Council President seconded amendment 5 which would require that all interior dividing walls be made from masonry material, “for sound deadening and fire control.” Mr. Hiob and Mayor Bennett both pointed out that Harford County recommends sticking with the international code, which is designed for maximum fire safety.
The Mayor stated that the current code requires a wall, which will constrain a fire for 3 hours. Mrs. Young stated that some fires go longer than 3 hours and Mr. Hiob reminded her that all multi-family dwellings have sprinkler systems.
In spite of logic the vote was 3 to 2 to defeat the amendment with both Mrs. Young and Mrs Elliott voting for the amendment. The sixth and final amendment was then introduced by Mrs. Young to require that the City’s architectural review committee review all townhouse developments. With very little discussion other than pointing out that the committee was established for the purpose of reviewing plans for commercial construction in the three overlay districts, the vote was called. The amendment was defeated 3 to 2 with Mrs. Young and Mrs. Elliott voting in favor of the amendment.
Before the introduction of the ordinance, two people rose to speak in opposition to the entire ordinance. I addressed the fact that townhouses are usually “transitional or starter housing” for the young families trying to get a start or for the economically strapped who are trying to get away from subsidized housing. In as much as the ordinance is so restrictive and is certainly going to add to the cost of construction and maintenance, that this bill must be looked at as “racist and elitist.” I also pointed out that it is obviously designed to keep out “those people.” I stated that a vote for the ordinance must be construed as a vote for racism.
Susan Stroud, who represents the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, rose to oppose the ordinance and to tell the Council that this type of ordinance is being turned over by courts across the country and/or leading to law suits for “exclusionary zoning.” Exclusionary zoning is code for discrimination and racist zoning.
From the looks on the faces and actions of the Council it was obvious that their minds were made up and that they certainly did not want to be confused by facts. The vote for the amendment was 3 to 2, with Young, Kupferman, and Elliott voting yes and Bennett and Hiob voting no.
The fact that this ordinance addresses only one type of housing and nothing is being done to restrict any other, most especially single family homes, is going to cost Aberdeen money in legal fees and potential settlement costs. One representative of the development community said that the easy way for the developer to work with this is to build apartments and condos in the R3 districts and steer clear of town homes. Any thoughts of work force housing in Aberdeen will now be abandoned.