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The proposal by high-profile lawyer Joseph Snee Jr. to build a five-story building on Main Street in downtown Bel Air is one that’s allowed by the zoning code, and therefore should be allowed.

The people of Bel Air, however, should give a lot of thought as to whether five-story buildings should be the face of things to come in the downtown district.

The few blocks of Bel Air around the Harford County Courthouse are defined by mostly two-story buildings with a smattering of three-story places. Many are throwbacks to an era when the family living in the upper floors managed the business at street level.

This architectural vestige of a largely bygone time is part of what has given Bel Air a kind of appeal that is lacking in other communities.

Though the proposed five-story building wouldn’t displace any of these character-defining buildings on Main Street, if more are built to follow suit, it’ll just be a matter of time before the whole look of Main Street is vastly different from what it has been for generations. Five-story buildings, after all, are more than twice as tall as most of the buildings in that part of town.

Another major issue to consider is the reality of Bel Air’s parking situation. While people sometimes complain about the parking situation in town, finding a free spot isn’t an insurmountable challenge, especially if you’re willing to walk a block or three.

Increasing the amount of office space in town by twofold or thereabouts by replacing two- and three-story buildings with five-story buildings would, presuming the space ends up being occupied, create a substantial demand for parking garages, which are hardly architecturally pleasing.

A few years back, Bel Air upped its height restriction to five stories, largely to accommodate Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, which was perfectly appropriate for that structure in that location. It seems there was something of an oversight in the town’s failure to make a provision to preserve the character of the Main Street district.

Such protections can be quite successful. Height restrictions are the reason Washington, D.C., has its stately look, even as neighboring communities in Northern Virginia are honeycombs of parking garages and largely monolithic buildings.

A single five-story building wouldn’t destroy the Main Street district in Bel Air, but if it ends up being the first of many, say goodbye to having a small town county seat.


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