The Council's Woes And Bobo's Ghost

COMMENT

December 28, 1992|By KEVIN THOMAS

If anything is clear from watching the debate raging over comprehensive rezoning in Howard County, it's that Councilman Vernon Gray is absolutely stunned by the acid-tinged rancor shown to the county's zoning board by no-growth proponents.

Mr. Gray has done everything imaginable to squelch some of the more poisonous rhetorical darts thrown the zoning board's way.

He has asked audiences at public hearings not to speak unless (( spoken to, to stop applauding or booing speakers and to stop holding up signs when they don't agree with something being said.

Mr. Gray has done all of this while expressing complete dismay about the animosity rezoning opponents have displayed toward the zoning board.

The question I have: Why is Mr. Gray surprised?

What is happening is nothing new. The no-growthers are capitalizing on the current political mood: Government is bad. Government is on the take. Government needs to be thrown out on its ear.

County Executive Charles Ecker, once an outsider, now an insider, can testify full well on what it's like to be painted with the bad-government brush after being hoisted into office on the shoulders of an angry mob out to get his predecessor, Elizabeth Bobo.

Having run for the executive's position as an advocate of reasonable, controlled growth, Mr. Ecker is now being accused of going too far in favor of developer interests. He even concedes that he feels a little sorry for Ms. Bobo because of the way she was treated by no-growth forces.

The fact that people may be suspicious of Mr. Ecker now that he is an insider certainly makes more difficult the job of selling comprehensive rezoning -- particularly the mixed-use development concept. And the county executive admits that thus far he has not done a very good job of promoting his ideas.

But I'm convinced that Mr. Ecker still has an opportunity to score some points in favor of reasonable growth and economic development. His greatest asset boils down to the fact that he is a lot more like Ronald Reagan -- affable and a good promoter -- than he is like George Bush -- a simpering whiner if ever there was one.

Unless Mr. Ecker has squandered the good feelings he has built up with members of the community, now seems like a good time for him to hit the stump with some plain talk about what's good for the county.

Here's an example of vintage Ecker that I'd like to hear more of:

"Show me a county that isn't growing, and I'll show you a poor county."

That says more than volumes of material on the need to shift a greater proportion of the tax burden onto commercial properties and off residential taxpayers, which is the goal behind Mr. Ecker's support for mixed-use developments.

The fact is, high-density developments that allow a mix of housing and commercial structures in one location serve several goals. They would also allow developers to build more affordable housing, while protecting the environment by limiting growth to specific areas.

People such as John Taylor, the county's legendary anti-growth activist, have gotten a lot of mileage out of the anti-government ,, sentiment so prevalent today. Mr. Taylor said to raucous applause at a public hearing the other day: "If I were a developer and it was 10 days to Christmas, I'd say, 'Thanks a lot.' "

That statement was meant to feed the notion that the County Council, sitting as the zoning board, is in the pockets of developers.

Not that council members have helped themselves much. It is more than just a curious kind of double life that the council leads when it occasionally transforms itself into the zoning board.

Real questions are raised about the propriety of having elected officials, who receive campaign contributions from a variety of business interests, including developers, make decisions that affect pocket books in the corporate community. An appointed zoning board may be no better, but the current situation is always going to leave the council vulnerable to innuendo.

Ms. Bobo was similarly charged with being too cozy with the development community. The charge was leveled even though most developers regarded her as anathema. The fact is, she was vilified by development folks because her 1990 General Plan clamped down on growth in unprecedented fashion in what was then a fast-growing county. No sooner had she been shown the door, however, than the bottom dropped out of the economy. At that point, slowing growth was no longer the issue. Speeding it up again was.

Every elected official in the county knows Howard needs the kind of stimulus that will keep tax revenues rising as Maryland slashes its support for local government.

What has them in a frightened, tongue-tied state is the specter of Liz Bobo standing before them like the Ghost of Christmas Past. They don't want to end up as she did: tarred, feathered and turned out.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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