Land Use Referendum? HOWARD COUNTY

August 17, 1993

As tempting as it may sound to some voters to have Howard County's most controversial zoning decisions decided by referendum, a recent lawsuit to make that happen is misguided.

The attempt by county slow-growth advocates to circumvent the normal process for making zoning decisions would create chaos by opening up what should be a judicial decision based on strict guidelines to the whims of public opinion at the moment. In the end, that would project to the business community the picture of a county without stability.

The five activists who filed the suit are attempting to have Howard's 1990 General Plan thrown out and to halt comprehensive rezoning. They are asking the court to force the county to enact the plan and rezonings by bill, which would subject those decisions to the prospect of voter referendum.

"People should have the power to make decisions on things that affect their lives," reasoned Susan Gray, one of the plaintiffs. "That decision has been taken out of the hands of the people."

In a simplistic sense, that has a populist appeal. But we cannot endorse a position that would logically lead citizens to believe that any decision made by public officials could be subject to referendum. And rather than being removed from the decision-making process as Ms. Gray suggests, Howard County residents are in an especially good position to have direct impact. Because the zoning board is made up of County Council members, residents can make their feelings known at re-election time every four years.

More so than many public issues, land-use planning and re-zonings would seem poor candidates for referendums. Voters are understandably going to take the short-term view and base decisions on how they impact their own property values, rather than on the long-term perspective that officials must take to ensure the county's prosperity.

As an opinion-meter, however, it would be interesting to test whether slow-growth advocates represent a majority in the county or, as we suspect, little more than a vocal minority. In fact, in their last petition drive attempting to bring the county's 1990 General Plan to referendum, slow-growthers couldn't muster sufficient support to do so. Was not that a gauge of how citizens feel in Howard County?

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