From Bill Wehland of Bel Air:
It has become increasingly apparent that the Harford County Council members do not work together as a team to pass legislation that represents the majority of the community’s interests. Instead they have their own self interests and create hostility between themselves and the citizens they serve.
A prime example is how they failed to vote on Bill 13-16 that was sponsored by four of the seven council members, Council President Billy Boniface, council members Jim McMahan, Dion Guthrie, and Joe Woods. This bill would require retail establishments larger than 75,000 square feet to ultimately be approved by the Harford County Council after review by Planning and Zoning, just like existing regulations are for Integrated Community Shopping Centers and Planned Residential Developments. Although this bill would not prevent big box stores from building in certain business districts (such as the controversial Wal-Mart project) it would have been the beginning of legislation that could have controls over future store size development.
Although many people who supported Bill 13-16 during the public hearing thought it was going to stop Wal-Mart from building if approved at the intersection of Plumtree and 924, they were probably encouraged by the words of Pete Gutwald, Director of Planning and Zoning who said that the law would apply to Wal-Mart if their site plan was not approved by his department before the new law became effective. This became a mute issue as Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti introduced an amendment, prior to the failure of the bill, exempting projects, such as the Wal-Mart, that had applied for county approval prior to the bill’s effective date. The amendment was co-sponsored by Councilman Dick Slutzky and approved by all members except for President Boniface and Councilman Jim McMahan.
The irony of the evening was climaxed by Councilman Jim McMahan making a motion to approve the bill as amended which should have produced an approval based upon the bill having already been sponsored by four council members and an amendment to the bill by two other members to rid any so called ambiguity as to projects that it would apply to. Instead, no member seconded the bill and thus it failed for lack of a second. I found this to be absurd and a slap in the face to the citizens supporting the bill. Other members apparently did not want to go on record as voting for or against the bill. In reality six of the seven members were in favor of the bill. There were the four who sponsored it and than the additional two who sponsored the amendment to the bill. Only Councilman Shrodes had difficulty with voting on anything.
At the conclusion of the meeting President Boniface expressed his frustration and was disappointed in his fellow council member’s decision to not vote on it. Unfortunately he would not allow the public still in attendance to make any further comments about the bill or their opinion how the council handled it.
After witnessing this debacle I believe the bill should have been thoroughly explained in layman terms when introduced and prior to the public hearing. Discussions should have been what it would do or not do and how it would fit actual practice. Secondly this bill should not have been voted on the same night. This would have allowed council members to think about it as a team, to understand the amendments, to allow public comment and to make changes based upon what they heard at the public hearing.
It is sad that this council will not consider store size caps and that they chose to give up their right to discuss and approve or disapprove structures over 75,000 square feet in size.
There have been so many other communities that have recognized that their local economies can absorb only so much new retail without causing numerous businesses to close and other pedestrian safety problems They have even gone a step beyond Bill 13-16 and enacted zoning rules that completely prohibit stores over a certain size. They have found that store size caps, within certain designated districts, prevent the many negative impacts of big box development such as increased traffic congestion and over burdened public infrastructure. Store size caps can protect the character of a community by ensuring new development is at a scale in keeping with existing buildings and surrounding residential communities.
Store size caps are perfectly legal, and scores of cities, towns and counties have restricted the size of their stores and their laws have not been challenged. State and local courts have ruled that restrictions in size are constitutional, they do not unduly harm competition, and they are a valid use in zoning authority.
Our county council needs to wake up and stop outlandish development. They need to consider store size caps as other progressive communities have done.
I also believe the council member have an obligation to publicly state their logic and reasons for not bringing Bill 13-16 to a vote and approving it. They owe this much to the Citizens to whom they report.
Bel Air, MD