Overlays – What Are They?

What Is An Overlay?

Officially it is “any specially mapped district which is subject to supplementary regulations or requirements for development”.  Every parcel of land in the County is zoned. An overlay sits on top of that zoning and modifies the normal usage allowed for every property which lies “under” the overlay. Overlays may restrict or enhance development. Restrictive overlay examples are the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area and the Floodplain district overlays.

Because the land beneath the overlay is fragile, certain types of development are not allowed even though the County has approved zoning for more intense development. Many of our restrictive overlays are handed down by State legislation. The past several years has seen the growth of development enhancing overlay legislation. A good example is the Edgewood Neighborhood Overlay District. Zoning restrictions are relaxed in this region with the hope of spurring the revitalization of commerce, residential neighborhoods and civic pride. Rather than rezoning large districts and changing every zoning regulation to reflect the desired new use, an overlay easily enacts the change in allowed uses by a single act of legislation.

The ease with which an overlay may happen should make us stop and think. An overlay may not always be a good idea. Several years ago, an overlay was proposed that would allow industrial use on agriculturally zoned land. Quite a change in zoning. While the underlying zoning remains unchanged, the over-the-top overlay may cause significant change.

Mixed Use In Your Backyard

The term “Mixed Use” is the basic principle of integrating where we live, work and shop and allows for various configurations and densities. 

The Harford County Zoning code §267-76, amended August 22, 2016 permits Mixed Use Centers* in every business, commercial and industrial zoning and in the high density R4 zoning.  All that is required is 5 acres of land inside the development envelope with access to a primary road and access to public water and sewer. Except for rubble fills, every use permitted in B1, B2, B3, CI, GI, LI and R4 zoning districts are permitted in the Mixed Use District REGARDLESS OF THE UNDERLYING ZONING.  

This means that properties intended to have low-intensity B1 zoning can be used at higher intensity, or for large commercial and industrial facilities, without public input, by establishing a Mixed Use District. 

B1 Neighborhood Business District is intended to provide limited retail services convenient to residential neighborhoods near the permitted business. B1 has standards which are compatible with low-density residential districts. 

We believe zoning code §267-76, should be amended to remove B1 areas from this use. 

We believe it is wrong to allow high intensity, high impact, and high traffic industrial and business uses in what is supposed to be low-impact B1 zoning 
(i.e., limited retail and service facilities for nearby residences).  We believe Mixed Use Centers should not be allowed on properties zoned B1.
 
The concept of a mixed use center that creates a combination of business and residential uses and a reduction of vehicle miles traveled is a good concept. But Mixed Use Center should not enable developers to supersede low-intensity B1 zoning standards, in effect rezoning properties to higher intensity without public input.  

We urge you to contact the County Council and ask them to amend the Zoning Code to remove Mixed Use Centers in B1 zoning districts.

*Mixed Use Centers are Special Development uses, meaning they are uses that are automatically allowed when they meet certain additional design requirements.

Review Harford County Zoning Code’s standards and descriptions HERE

Quickly compare the Uses permitted under different zoning, click HERE. 
Allowable B1 zoning uses are on pages 18 and 19.
 

Transparency & Public Input

The latest example of Harford County enacting legislation without full open and transparent public input was the County Council’s approval (6-1) of the HarfordNEXT Master Plan on June 21st 2016.

The public was allowed to comment on the plan on June 7th.  However, 16 amendments were made on June 14th, 15 were presented by Councilman Mike Perrone, and 1 amendment was provided by the County Executive.  Private letters, phone calls and emails were admissible for comment about the bill and the amendments provided, however no public speeches or comments about the bill or its amendments were allowed during the subsequent Council meetings on the 7th, 14th or 21st by the Council decree as provided by Council President Slutzky with approval by the 6 Councilmen.

On June 21st, County Council members and the County Executive presented a further 34 amendments.  The public was not allowed to view any of the amendments, nor could they comment on them.  Some of the amendments created major changes in the bill.

That evening, the Council voted on each amendment and then voted for passage of the bill.  Again, that evening, no citizen was able to speak publicly about the bill, the amendments or the vote.  The Council then adjourned for the summer allowing only 2 sessions until September.

Under the County Code, Chapter 4: Administration of Government, Section 4-19 Sessions of Council, A., it states that “such additional days as the Council may determine, are designated as legislative sessions days for the enactment of legislation”.  It further states that no more than 45 sessions may occur during one year.  To date, 21 sessions have occurred, leaving ample opportunity for special sessions to listen to citizen comments concerning amendments prior to voting on legislation.

We believe this right of public input needs to be expanded to allow comment on all amendments.  The habit of springing a change at the last minute without warning and without comment is unwarranted.

The Comprehensive Rezoning legislation will be forthcoming. This can affect every single piece of property and could impact every Harford County citizen in some manner, be it good or bad. The County Council should require adequate time for public comment before, during and after introduction of legislation and its amendments.  The Council needs to plan ahead and be ready for legislation, not wait until the eleventh hour.

Stormwater

On June 21, 2016, Harford County Council passed a state required financial assurance plan which described how the County will accomplish the stormwater runoff control required by Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) by the end of the County’s pollution permit, also called the EPA Clean Water Act Permit. This requirement is part of the larger program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries (e.g. Winters Run, Broad Creek, Bush River) by 2025. The reduction of stormwater runoff pollution is important because it is the only source of water pollution that is increasing. 
 
Harford’s financial assurance plan clearly stated that the County intended to remediate only half of the stormwater pollution it is required to stop.  The reason for this shortfall was described as inadequate finances. Finances are inadequate because the County Executive and County Council eliminated the stormwater management fee, without identifying an adequate funding source to replace it. In addition, the County is appealing the terms of its current permit so that it does not have to comply with current and future pollution control requirements. 
 
The County has submitted a financial assurance plan that may be unacceptable and misleading about what will be accomplished with available funding. EPA administrators have already stated that EPA will not accept unused sewage treatment capacity as credit for stormwater runoff control as proposed by the County. More important, such a claim for credit does not reduce pollution in any way and especially not pollution caused by stormwater runoff.
 
The County also proposes to obtain pollution control credit for connecting septic systems to sewers or by converting septic to the best available technology. This exchange of pollution control seems reasonable and will probably result in a reduction of nutrient pollution, but it does nothing to reduce the siltation of our waters or reduce the risks of flood damage from stormwater runoff. An example of a much better trade is to assist farmers in planting cover crops and/or stream side wooded buffers in exchange for urban stormwater management where urban management is not feasible. Cover crops and wooded stream side buffers reduce erosion, sedimentation, nutrient pollution and increase stormwater infiltration, thus reducing the risk of flooding. But of course, this kind of action requires funding.
 
Finally, the financial assurance plan claims that grants will provide some of the funding needed. If the granting agency is the federal government and it considers septic system – sewer connections and unused sewage treatment capacity claims for pollution reduction credit as a reallocation of funds, rather than funding of genuine pollution control, additional grants are very unlikely. 
 
The financial assurance plan seems to be part of a pattern of avoiding stormwater runoff control. The plan clearly states that the County does not have the finances necessary to reduce sedimentation and nutrient pollution required by state and federal plans. The County also acknowledges this situation in the new Master Plan – Harford Next Water Resource Element Plan – Appendix 2. The County has budgeted a hundred thousand dollars to  join some other counties to litigate the requirements of the state and federal water pollution control plans rather than develop a replacement for the funding program it completely canceled. In addition, a recent survey revealed that developers complied with the County’s Erosion and Sedimentation Act only 34% of the time, and the County has presented no plans to increase the compliance rate either through education or enforcement. 
 
So it appears that Harford County is unwilling to develop adequate funding sources for needed  programs that result in significant water quality improvement. For example, County administrators used and are still using the term “Rain Tax” to mislead the public about the problem and the need for solutions.  Rain is an uncontrollable natural process – but hot, dirty, destructive runoff from heavy rain is created by people and their impervious roads, parking lots, and buildings.  Government must participate in educating our citizens about the problem and take the lead in developing fair, equitable and effective stormwater control programs. 
 
The stormwater runoff control fee had many problems and needed revision or replacement instead of total elimination. Corrective efforts, so far, have been grossly inadequate as evidenced by the financial assurance plan and the County Master Plan. Unless the current County Administration and Council believe that government, landowners and businesses have a right to pollute and to flood downstream properties, we must accept that we have an obligation to change our ways and fix these man-made problems.