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Residents and members of the development community gave Bel Air’s planning commission their take on the proposed form-based zoning plan for the town at a March 4 hearing.

Some of the changes being considered could affect how Main Street and other major thoroughfares in the town’s central core look in the future.

Two representatives from Environmental Resources Management, contracted by the town to design a zoning plan for Bel Air that incorporates the form-based principle, discussed the completed plan.

The proposal’s main thrust involves separating the areas immediately east and west of Bond Street into two districts.

The strip to the east, including Main Street, would be zoned B2, for central business. The strip west of Bond and extending down Route 1 would be B3A, or general business gateway.

The plan would also be notable for requiring properties in the central business zone to have 100 percent of their front occupied by building wall.

Some attendees at the meeting were concerned because the new guidelines would impose more regulations over the construction of taller buildings.

The current zoning allows for a maximum height of five stories or 65 feet, with a building of more than 40 feet being subject to additional standards that are not specified, said Planning Director Carol Deibel. (Please see related story on Page A1.)

The new guidelines would only allow five-story buildings west of Bond Street, with properties in the central business, B2 area having a maximum of 45 feet or three stories, although the town “may want to consider allowing greater height with design standards.”

Deibel said, however, that the planning commission is considering revising the design standards to continue allowing taller buildings if they are compatible with adjacent properties.

“Currently, there is an allowance for good design and if a property can show that it can handle a five-story building,” Deibel said.

Several people present said they support denser development in the town center.

Fran Johnson said having more flexibility for factors like building height will provide more protection for residential neighborhoods because it will keep commercial development from spreading farther and pushing residents out.

“I really think, as a resident, the more development we have in the downtown area and the more verticality, the less encroachment we have in the residential areas,” she said. “Certainly the way to make Bel Air more viable is to make it all business. I don’t think we want to say that.”

Craig Ward, president of Frederick Ward Associates, commended the intention of the form-based review process.

“The need to change our current code is very important. We have a very confusing code with a lot of pieces that have been cobbled together,” Ward, whose engineering and architectural firm is on Main Street, said. “Even in our office, to properly evaluate what is possible on a project, you have to go through page by page by page.”

Regarding the plan’s specific points, Ward said he thinks Main Street is a two-story-scale street and any project taller than that should be set back from the sidewalk.

He suggested that larger buildings on Bond Street, as well as those like Harford Mutual Insurance and ShopRite, should be zoned B3.

Ward also warned the plan would mean many existing properties become non-conforming, which has negative implications.

“The issue of nonconformity, that is a real negative when you go to get financing and things like that,” he said. “From a reality standpoint, we have significant buildings that simply don’t conform and are not gonna conform. We just can’t have some of our most important buildings out there ... treated as non-conforming.”

Paul Thompson, of Towson-based Architectural Design Works, said the code should be more flexible.

“We are sending, I think, the wrong signals to the development community. At the end of the day, leave it to the design professionals to come up with a building that is aesthetically pleasing with a two-story facade. I think we are starting to sort of legislate more than you are maybe intending to legislate and you are tying the hands of creative individuals trying to bring great projects to Bel Air,” he said.

Although many in attendance had said earlier they did not want Bel Air to look like Towson, Thompson, whose firm has designed many buildings in town, said the code should be open to the potential of denser housing in the downtown area, as it encourages commercial development.

“I think our retail core is struggling because there is not enough residential development in the town area,” he said.

Rowan Glidden, landscape architect with Belcamp-based George William Stephens Jr. and Associates, Inc., said he is concerned about requiring buildings to have full frontage because it could limit the possibilities for re-development.

Several speakers see the code change as an opportunity.

Michael Leaf, a resident who used to own property in town, said buildings should not be capped at two or three stories.

“There are some properties on Main Street that are less than desirable as they currently exist,” Leaf, a development lawyer, said. “If you want to see some of the less-than-desirable buildings being replaced by attractive buildings, I really think you have to allow the extra stories.”

Town Commissioner Terry Hanley echoed Leaf’s sentiment, saying the form based plan puts Bel Air in a good position, especially with BRAC coming.

“There are a lot of buildings on Main Street that are not the most desirable. There’s a lot of opportunity on Main Street,” he said. “I think building five stories on Main Street could be a good thing in the long run.”

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