Ballot questions can be confusing Tax caps, rezoning may befuddle voters

October 30, 1990|By Bruce Reid and Marina Sarris | Bruce Reid and Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

Beware: When you vote in Harford or Anne Arundel counties next Tuesday you may want to take a lawyer to translate.

You may need one in Anne Arundel to understand a property tax limitation proposal or in Harford to decipher Question B, the product of a once-heated political debate over growth control and a now-dead mall project.

In addition to the slate of candidates they'll see, voters in some counties will be asked on Election Day to cast ballots for or against certain issues. But sometimes the questions are so couched in legalese, voters will struggle to make sense of them even if they are familiar with the issue, such as the much-publicized tax cap proposals in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties or the mall issue in Harford.

In Harford, even officials who helped write the language acknowledge that Question B takes the cake. It asks voters to approve or disapprove an "emergency act to repeal and re-enact, with amendments, Section 267-101, incorporation by reference, of Article XX, official Harford County zoning maps, of Part 5, zoning maps. . . ."

What?

Think back about a year, when the huge Windsor Mall shopping center project was planned on Md. 24 south of Bel Air. Loud opposition to the $100 million plan, as well as economic realities, eventually forced the Dallas-based developer to pull up stakes.

But before the plan fell through, the Harford County Council approved new zoning to accommodate the mall in its comprehensive rezoning law. The rezoning law, which affects more than 200 properties besides the mall tract, is what voters are being asked to approve or disapprove.

There's a catch: Fearful that the mall controversy had jeopardized zoning for all properties in the county, the council later passed a bill that said regardless of what the voters say, all rezoning actions will stand -- except for those affecting what was the mall tract.

So, a vote for the rezoning law means that the mall tract, which is actually several parcels covering about 200 acres, would have zoning that permits a shopping center. The previous zoning, which would stand if the rezoning law is turned down, allows a variety of commercial uses, including textile mills, movie theaters, truck stops and restaurants.

Despite the facts that the Windsor Mall proposal is dead and the council bill watered down the referendum's effect, organizers of the measure say the issue remains important. Their aim is to prevent another shopping center developer from taking an interest in the land.

They have printed nearly 40,000 fact sheets to explain Question B. And they are posting signs around the county urging voters to reject the rezoning law.

Robert McLewee, president and treasurer of Harford Citizens for Controlled Growth, which organized the referendum drive, agreed that voters would have trouble understanding Question B or remembering what all the fuss is about.

James D. Vannoy, a legislative aide to the County Council, said Question B was written in such legal jargon for a reason. "We were afraid that no matter how we tried to summarize it, one side or the other would object," he said.

State law on the subject of writing ballot questions says they "shall contain a condensed statement in understandable language." But it also says it is "sufficient in any case to print the legislative title" of the law being referred and brief summary information.

In Anne Arundel, the summary of a proposed charter amendment to limit property taxes has already confused some voters.

In fact, the man who drafted the original amendment, Robert C. Schaeffer, said the summary is downright misleading because it omits any reference to property tax revenue -- the amount of money generated by property taxes.

Question D asks Anne Arundel voters if they want to limit the growth of the tax rate above the "constant yield tax rate" to 4.5 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. The constant yield tax rate is one that would produce the same level of revenue as the previous year, assuming no new growth.

The full text of the amendment, however, refers specifically to limiting increases in tax revenue. Attorneys for all sides agree that the full amendment, not the summary, will become law if Question D passes.

Still, Schaeffer worries that the wording has confused voters. People have told him that Question D "doesn't look right," he said. "I'm getting beat up for it. It's terrible to go through all this to get it on the ballot and have them misword it."

His attorney, John R. Greiber Jr., approved the ballot language after consulting with him, but Schaeffer said Greiber apparently misunderstood him. Greiber declined to comment.

James C. Praley, the Board of Elections attorney, said he believes the ballot language is an accurate summary of the amendment.

No one really knows how the cap will be administered or whether it will provide a substantial tax cut, which adds to the confusion.

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