The following letter was sent to the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners by former Harford County Councilman and Bel Air Mayor Robert Cassilly. A copy was provided to The Dagger:
I want to reiterate my concerns regarding the “form based zoning,” which is at the heart of Bel Air’s proposed Development Regulations. I agree with those who advise that form based zoning would be a significant step backwards in efforts to balance Bel Air’s competing roles as a town center, a community of neighborhoods, a thriving commercial district, and the County seat.
The underlying assumption of form based zoning is that the form (shape, design, size) of the building and not the use of the building should be regulated. This might have a nice ring for some but those of us who live or work in these areas know that land use does matter. Regardless of form, an office building in a residential neighborhood does not foster the same sense of community as does a traditional family residence; and a restaurant district is not enhanced by adjoining residences complaining about noise, traffic, and late hours.
Town residents have for years flocked to Town meetings to voice opposition to the practical equivalent of form based zoning – speculators using political influence to develop residential properties for commercial uses. The Town often supported these incursions with pronouncements that the adjoining streets had become too busy for continued residential use. The new Development Regulations turn that logic on its head by encouraging high intensity residential development in the busiest sections of the downtown area.
With form based zoning we find ourselves moving beyond a code that challenges the viability of our residential neighborhoods to a code that challenges the viability of both the residential neighborhoods and the downtown business district. These changes could potentially turn the entire Town center into a zone of unpredictability where land use is determined not by elected officials but by lawyers arguing the interests of real estate speculators before an appointed commission for which Town residency is not a membership requirement.
Town residents who have carefully defended the residential communities from the constant threat of commercial sprawl should be equally concerned for the viability and makeup of our business district. Bel Air has come a long way from the days when Main and Bond Streets were of minimal use to Town residents beyond the occasional trip to a lawyer’s or accountant’s office. The Town center now boasts an increasing number of restaurants and specialty shops that make Bel Air a more enjoyable place to live and work. One has to wonder why, at a time when commercial developers are trying to recreate as “Avenues” sanitized versions of our Main Street, Bel Air is considering sweeping zoning changes that would be unwelcome in the new Avenues.
While there are a number of properties along Main and Bond still in need of redevelopment, the proposed regulations are not the right approach. The new Regulations encourage land owners in the commercial areas to combine properties into large tracts to support five story residential complexes along nearly all of Main and Bond. This quick fix will no doubt push redevelopment but the result will be less land available for future commercial growth (restaurants, shops, and offices) in the downtown and greater pressures to expand office and other commercial uses into the residential neighborhoods to accommodate an expanding County government. As the dominoes fall, residential property owners will be pressured to seek more intense uses for their properties or risk having their homes dwarfed by adjacent, large commercial structures. This lack of certainty in surrounding land use will discourage maintenance and reuse of the Town’s older and historic structures.
Development Regulations should support the community’s vision and not foster a game of zoning poker in which small commercial usage beats single family residential; large multifamily residential beats small businesses (shops, restaurants); and big boxes beat them all. The Town needs to continue the difficult work of commercial redevelopment in a manner that appreciates the significant benefits a well maintained commercial center offers to the Town’s residential neighborhoods.
The Town Board is being asked to condone the potential for such radical change on assurances that the appointed Planning Commissioners of the future will be entirely sensitive to community interests and will not exercise their power to approve development of properties to the fullest extent allowed in the new Development Regulations. However, that approach surrenders to an unelected commission the citizens’ ability to shape their community. Town Board members should assume in their consideration of the proposed Regulations that each property will in fact be developed to the fullest extent allowed under the Development Regulations and adjust the regulations to allow more intense development only to that extent to which the elected Town Board determines is currently appropriate. The elected Board and not the appointed Commission should determine the future of our Town.
Former Member Harford County Council, District C
Former Mayor and Commission Town of Bel Air