Fight over warehouses is about quality of life
The battle over land in Harford County is not merely about saving trees, though it has all the markings of a classic conflict between developers and conservationists often seen in Maryland. The battle this time is about more than that. It’s about what we expect as modern consumers versus what we want as inhabitants of this coughing, wheezing planet.
As I listened this week to testimony before the Harford County Council regarding a proposed six-month moratorium on warehouse construction, it struck me that the tension is between two aspects of modern life — our desire to be green and our desire to have everything, from digital devices to frying pans, delivered to our door. On one side, there are thoughtful and earnest county residents fighting to save woods and wetlands from developers; on the other, it’s the e-commerce juggernaut, with a global supply chain that includes massive 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 unused and leasable. On top of that, developers are proposing five more warehouses of 5.2 million square feet on Perryman Peninsula, four new warehouses of 2 million square feet at Abingdon Woods, and a complex of three warehouses of 729,500 square feet in Aberdeen.
Bob Cassilly, the county executive, wants to see a six-month moratorium on new warehouse construction because, he says, Harford is approaching a crossroads. Without a pause to think about all this, Cassilly told the county council that Harford
“will be known as the warehouse county.”
Cassilly said the council that approved the relevant zoning regulations 40 years ago could not have envisioned the world of e-commerce, mega warehouses and consumer demand for nextday delivery. Added County Attorney Jefferson Blomquist: “The state of business in 1982 bears no resemblance to the state of business in 2023.”
Harford’s population in 1982 was 149,551. The latest census, from July 2021, put the population at 262,977. So that’s at least 113,000 more people living — and flushing toilets — on what had been farmland and forest, near tributaries of the Chesapeake
Bay and the bay itself. Add to that all the commercial development that has taken place (shopping centers, office parks, manufacturing plants, self-storage facilities, gas stations and warehouses), and it’s no wonder that Harford countians have started 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 I was attracted to 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 been disappearing and truck traffic has increased, bringing with it noise and air pollution. Massive warehouses will bring even more, along with the further degradation of waterways leading to the bay.
Those are all quality-of-life issues, and they push against our general expectations as
21st century consumers. We’ve become customers of the global supply chain — even more so since the pandemic — and now fully expect it to deliver the world to our door. That’s also a quality-of-life issue.
Indeed, our reliance on online shopping has come with an environmental cost — more cardboard boxes and other packaging (to recycle, maybe or maybe not), the collapse of traditional retail, empty stores and parking lots, and the loss of green space for mega warehouses.
Plus, says Cassilly, the employment picture in those warehouses is not great; they don’t create all that many jobs, and pay is on the low end. Harford County, he says, should be trying to attract businesses that pay higher wages for skilled or highly educated workers.
Opponents, led by Councilman Aaron Penman, believe Cassilly’s moratorium would deliver a strong anti-business message from Bel Air. Penman went further, saying the moratorium would violate the rights of property owners and be unfair to companies that have already won permits for warehouse construction. He called the proposed moratorium and the costly litigation it could spawn a “recipe for economic disaster.”
Other opponents of the moratorium took exception to Cassilly’s comments about warehouse work, saying some graduates of
Harford’s public schools need “box stacker” jobs.
Aside from Penman’s legal arguments — that the county’s zoning allows for the warehouses and that the moratorium would “changes the rules in the middle of the game” — the opposition sounded like a throwback to the old world, the one before e-commerce changed the nature and scope of industrial development, the one before climate change.
And so it was good to hear, among those who oppose cutting more trees to build giant warehouses, 20-year-old Emma
Peller. Sporting a blue “Protect Perryman Peninsula” cap, she asked her elders on the council to consider an issue much larger than zoning codes. “I’ve grown up in a world forever damaged by climate change,” Peller said. “It’s an existential threat that looms over my entire generation. The Harford County that I grew up in looks pretty 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 do not take action today.”
Six months to think about the future of Harford County, and that of our coughing, wheezing planet, should not be too much to ask.