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.

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.