Referendum on rezoning is rejected

February 04, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The county elections board has rejected a 7,000-signature petition that would have put the county's recently completed comprehensive rezoning plan on hold until November and allowed voters to determine its fate.

The three-member board cited 1976 and 1978 Circuit Court rulings as the reason for voting unanimously Jan. 26 to deny the petition. The court ruled in those cases that voter referendums cannot be used to contest Zoning Board actions.

Leaders of the petition drive say they are undaunted by the denial and are going forward with plans to put a different, but related question on the ballot this fall.

That petition, which they say will be ready for elections board perusal late this summer, would amend the county charter and require the County Council to approve comprehensive rezoning and the General Plan as "original bills."

Currently, comprehensive rezoning is done by a "decision and order" of the Zoning Board and the General Plan is approved by resolution of the County Council. Neither can be vetoed or put to a voter referendum.

Neither Peter J. Oswald, the petitioner, nor slow-growth advocate Susan Gray, who wrote the petition summary, were surprised by the board's ruling.

"It's nothing new -- it's as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning and the sun going down in the evening," Ms. Gray said.

"We expected that the referendum would not be successful," Mr. Oswald said. "All we want to do is make the process more helpful for people and give people more voice."

One difference between the petition denied Jan. 26 and the one planned for summer is that the summer petition would affect future comprehensive rezonings of the county. The rejected petition would have affected only the 1993 rezoning.

"The Board does not wish to exclude or limit public participation in the legislative process," Frank Lupashunski, the board president, told Mr. Oswald in a Jan. 28 letter, "but the Board feels compelled to follow the court precedents."

John W. Taylor, leader of a slow-growth lobby called Howard County Citizens for Responsible Growth, said that he was disappointed by the denial of Mr. Oswald's petition.

"Voter petition drives are fundamental to democracy," he said. "The government has to be very, very careful when it disallows citizen referendums on any topic. It seems like they were splitting hairs and looking for reasons to deny" this one.

Mr. Oswald, who learned of the board's decision from a reporter yesterday, needed signatures from 5,000 registered voters to get his petition on the ballot. He gave the board 3,450 signatures in December and 3,715 more in early January.

Mr. Oswald said that the denial is not a defeat, but another step toward achieving his ultimate objective, which is to have General Plan and comprehensive rezoning decisions subject to voter referendum.

"What we're trying to do," Mr. Oswald said, "is have a democratic means of approving or disapproving [comprehensive rezoning and the General Plan]. I don't think we're losing anything" by having the first petition denied.

While collecting signatures on the comprehensive zoning petition, Mr. Oswald "doubled up" by asking people to also sign the charter amendment petition he plans to present to the board late this summer.

He expects even more support for the charter amendment because "the charter amendment petition is much simpler, and very few people have trouble grasping it," Mr. Oswald said. "If we have the referendum tool, council members [sitting as the Zoning Board] will have reason to compromise with citizens" opposed to certain land use proposals.

The current process -- "night hearings that go past midnight, day hearings where you have to take off work and are allowed to speak only three minutes" -- is flawed and needs to be changed, he said.

Mr. Oswald said that it favors developers, who are given time to air their proposals, and frustrates residents who are permitted to speak for only three minutes.


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.