Dan Rodricks: In Harford County, a battle between e-commerce and green space


The battle for land in Harford County isn’t just about saving trees, although it bears all the hallmarks of a classic conflict between developers and conservationists often seen in Maryland. The fight this time is about more than that. It’s about what we expect as modern consumers versus what we want as residents of this coughing, wheezing planet.

As I listened to testimony before Harford County Council this week about a proposed six-month moratorium on warehouse construction, it struck me that there is a tension between two aspects of modern life – our desire to be green and our desire to having everything from digital devices to frying pans delivered to our door. On the one hand there are thoughtful and serious county residents fighting to save forests and wetlands from property developers; On the other hand, it’s the e-commerce juggernaut with a global supply chain that includes huge warehouses and distribution centers.

Harford County, along Interstate 95, already has a lot of warehouse/distribution space, and the county executive’s office says more than 2.8 million square feet of it is vacant and rentable. In addition, the developers are proposing five additional 5.2 million square foot warehouses on the Perryman Peninsula, four new 2 million square foot warehouses in Abingdon Woods and a three-warehouse complex of 729,500 square feet in Aberdeen.

Bob Cassilly, the district executive, wants a six-month moratorium on new warehouse construction because, he says, Harford is nearing a crossroads. Without thinking twice, Cassilly told county council that Harford “will be known as Warehouse County.”

Cassilly said the council, which passed the relevant zoning regulations 40 years ago, could not envision the world of e-commerce, mega department stores and consumer demand for next-day delivery. District Attorney Jefferson Blomquist added, “The state of affairs in 1982 bears no resemblance to the state of affairs in 2023.”

In 1982, Harford had a population of 149,551. The last census of July 2021 put the population at 262,977. So that’s at least 113,000 more people living — and flushing toilets — on what was once farmland and forest near tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay and the bay itself. Add to this all the commercial development that has taken place (shopping malls, office parks, manufacturing plants, self-storage facilities, gas stations, and warehouses) and it’s no wonder the Earls of Harford have begun to rebel.

“I moved here 20 years ago, and I didn’t move here for the warehouses,” said Cindy Mehr, one of more than 50 people who lined up Tuesday to testify at the council hearing. “I moved here because of the laid-back, rural, small-town appeal of the area.”

And since then, Mehr and several other supporters of Cassilly’s moratorium said, trees have disappeared and truck traffic has increased, causing noise and air pollution. Huge warehouses will add even more, along with the further deterioration of the waterways leading to the bay.

These are all quality of life issues, and they are at odds with our general expectations as 21st-century consumers. We have become customers of the global supply chain – especially since the pandemic – and now fully expect it to deliver the world to our doorstep. This is also a question of quality of life.

In fact, our reliance on online shopping comes at a cost to the environment – ​​more boxes and other packaging (for recycling, maybe or maybe not), the collapse of traditional retail, empty stores and parking lots, and the loss of green space for mega warehouses.

Also, says Cassily, the employment picture in these camps isn’t great; They don’t create too many jobs and the pay is on the low end. Harford County, he says, should try to attract companies that pay higher wages for skilled or highly skilled workers.

Opponents, led by council member Aaron Penman, believe Cassilly’s moratorium would send a strong anti-Bel Air business message. Going further, Penman said the moratorium would violate the rights of property owners and be unfair to companies that have already received permits to build warehouses. He called the proposed moratorium and the costly litigation it could provoke a “prescription for economic disaster.”

Other opponents of the moratorium took offense at Cassilly’s comments on warehouse work, saying some Harford public school graduates needed “crate-handling” jobs.

Penman’s legal arguments aside — that the borough’s zoning allowed the warehouses and that the moratorium “would change the rules mid-game” — the opposition sounded like a throwback to the old world, before e-commerce changed the way and Scope of industrial development ahead of climate change.

And so it was good to hear that among those opposed to cutting down more trees to build huge warehouses was 20-year-old Emma Peller. Wearing a blue cap that read “Protect Perryman Peninsula,” she asked her elders on the council to consider a much larger issue than zoning. “I grew up in a world that was forever damaged by climate change,” Peller said. “It’s an existential threat that threatens my entire generation. The Harford County I grew up in looks very different from the Harford County you grew up in. I’m afraid to think about what the world will be like when my future children grow up if we don’t do anything today.”

Six months to contemplate the future of Harford County and our coughing, wheezing planet shouldn’t be asking too much.

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