As I attended the meeting Thursday night facilitated by the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning I, like many others, was unsure of what to expect by way of format and presentation. The Chesapeake Dining Room, located on the campus of Harford Community College, was filled with approximately 45-50 attendees all representing diverse areas of interest throughout the county. Upon sign-in participants, were randomly assigned tables with fellow attendees/concerned citizens. From the beginning, some knew each other while others made introductions for the first time. As the meeting began participants where provided a presentation that outlined the purpose and stages of the Harford County Master Plan and Land Use Element Plan. The presentation and all later referenced materials in this article have been provided, in detail, on the website maintained by the Department of Planning and Zoning (http://www.harfordcountymd.gov/PlanningZoning/index.cfm?ID=673) .
To say that I fully understood what was expected of the audience after the opening presentation was an understatement. This sentiment was also reflected in the casual glance around the tables confirming the “now what do you want us to do” affirmation. In that same moment, in what seemed to be slight hesitation by all to take the first step, facilitators for the meeting flocked to the tables to oversee “discussion groups” in what would be a canvassing of ideas, insights, and reservations about what participants see as issues that need to be addressed in the next Master Plan. The dynamics of the randomly assigned seating at tables came to show that though not everyone agreed on issues, there is a distinct and challenging need for the county to carefully engage communities outside of this initial forum. To the credit of the Department of Planning and Zoning, the task of putting “The Plan” in place amidst the ceiling view of BRAC, is a daunting one to say the least and will never be to the contentment of everyone. At my table in particular, I heard concerns of those who live in the rural parts of the county vested in farming and agriculture along with those living within the “Development T” which includes everything along RT 40 and the town of Bel Air. In our microcosm of brainstorming groups, you could see the dynamic interest and concerns taxpaying citizens have within the county regarding future growth. I personally enjoyed the roundtable as I engaged with lifelong residents of Harford County who were able to answer some of my more personal questions about the state of affairs regarding county development in the past, specifically the current state of affairs for the RT 40 corridor. A lot of it, as I found, have to do with poor decisions made in the past but that’s another article in the making pending more research. Within the groups there was no personal right or wrong approach because in retrospect, we have to realize that everyone has a vested interest in maintaining their way of life. The brainstorming sessions were positive in the fact that they provided a forefront of challenges the county will face in maintaining awareness of core concerns of its citizens. As a former military person who has lived as far north as Alaska and as far south as Texas, I have seen both sides of the coin when the need to develop has made rural communities into extensions of business districts. I fondly remember when Denton, Texas was more agriculture acreage than anything. In a matter of a few years, Denton became what locals now call greater Dallas.
Additional concerns of more Park and Recreation areas, preservation of natural lands, and expansion of the development envelope beyond the “T”, were also presented. These current issues have overlapping affect on future development concerns within the county. Not without importance, the issue of affordability and cost to the county rang loudly among a majority of the tables. When analyzing development plans, it would be an oversight in not addressing the current and future financial balance of the county laid at the taxpayer’s feet. As most development plans unveil themselves the projected fiscal requirement, needed to further change, is paramount and shapes the direction of planning.
Though not everyone left with a sense of accomplishment within the meeting, I believe it was a solid attempt to open the lines of communication with residents of Harford County. At the onset of the meeting one of my pending questions was to inquire if there was already a plan in place to which this session was to compliment. In speaking with department representatives, I was informed there was no current plan in place and this was the initial step. Without reason to doubt otherwise, this is the initial stage with regard to community input. In keeping with this line of thought, this is a critical time for communities throughout Harford County to engage in the process with their concerns. There are some reservations I have about the ability to engage the community which can be remedied by a more proactive stance from the Department of Planning and Zoning.
In an effort to encourage dialogue through the digital medium, participants were told that the department currently hosts a live, online message board to which residents can post concerns and issues. The brainstorming session was an initial attempt of what is projected to be a diverse background for the county to highlight key issues for the overall discussion. From now until March 13th, residents will be able to post comments to the board through the previously mentioned website to voice their concerns. On March 13th the online discussion board will then close to comments as the department reviews the submitted issues and concerns. While I have reservations about the outcome of the initial brainstorming, it is only due to the fact that I believe the county should hold town hall type sessions in areas of Harford County which encompass the areas of agriculture, business districts, and the RT 40 community. The “trash can” style of formulating some level of similar consensus proves difficult when a true representation of the areas that will most likely be affected are not afforded the opportunity to partake in face-to-face discussion. With a timeline of an approximate year, from inception to completion of the plan, this informal need becomes critical in the face of growing commerce and business future. Especially important is the assumption that those partaking in the online forums will have concerns of substance and resolutions, while straying from the online smear board that sometimes befalls this type of media delivery. This can be moderated by website maintainers, but usually becomes a back and forth battle which develops into misinformation, blame games, and hesitant participation within the process by citizens. The ability for individuals to use anonymous names for input at this level only encourages what may become unproductive banter, which contributes nothing in the form of accurate concerns. To the department’s credit however, in my opinion, the initiative to offer such a service is a positive step to open all forms of communication, but a more formal approach is needed for a more honest capture of county resident concerns. During the meeting department representatives did indicate that they would make themselves available to communities, upon request, to discuss issues. Therefore, it is prudent for varied communities within Harford County to take advantage of this offer and coordinate with the department to come out to your community councils, farmers associations, business groups, etc.
Ultimately several factors lay at the core of future development of Harford County. I heard a statement alluding to Harford County “getting a wrap around BRAC” as far as development. Unfortunately, having been through several community realignments in the military, BRAC tends to wrap itself around the county which is forced to keep pace with its needs and trends. The prior is not a negative connotation, but one that realistically residents must become aware of. With a sprawl in advanced and high technology jobs, there comes a need for greater services, public transportation routes (PTR), and facilities to house workers, contractors, and its sub contractors from the onset. The question becomes, to expand or not to expand from the present “Model T”, which is distinguishable along RT 40 and into Bel Air along MD 24? Again, there are no easy winners or loser in this. There is a need to best address residents’ frustrations, concerns, and fears despite the outcome. In the end I think some key arguments that can be made boil down to the elements of affordability, tax burden, land preservation, and dealing with the need for expansion or continued development density within the “T” envelope. There is no one area who should be left out of the process and it commendable that the Department of Planning and Zoning has taken this initial step in dialogue with the community. However as a suggestion, the show must go on the road in order to produce a more productive rather than deconstructive tone to the entire process.
The Department of Planning and Zoning has an approximate year for projected completion of the plan. While the intentions are positive in engaging the community, they will have to go out and address groups rather than rely on a few public hearings and online discussion board. In our current economic times when counties across the state are finding ways to do more with less, Harford County will have to strike the balance of encouraging future development as it relates with BRAC/commerce and quality of life needs for its taxpaying citizens.