Zoning Ruling as Last Word

July 05, 1994

Alas, there probably isn't too much satisfaction that can be drawn from the recent decision of a Howard County Circuit Court judge to uphold the county's 1990 General Plan and its 1992 and 1993 comprehensive rezonings: It won't quiet residents unhappy with county growth policies.

In his ruling against a coalition of county residents, Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. made it clear that the plaintiffs had barked up the wrong tree when they contended that the long-range land use plan and comprehensive rezoning were of such magnitude that they should be subject to voter referendum or a veto.

According to Judge Sybert, the matter is simple: The county's charter gives the County Council, whether sitting as the council or the Zoning Board, authority over strategic planning and rezoning. That authority -- in the form of a resolution in the case of the General Plan and an order in the case of rezoning -- does not subject those decisions to referendum or veto. This process, Judge Sybert noted, has been in place since 1969.

If the same ruling were delivered to reasonable people, that might put an end to it. But that's doubtful given the persistence shown by those who brought this suit in the first place. They will almost certainly continue their fight, through appeal or an attempt to amend the county charter.

It is certainly within their legal rights to pursue their cause. However, a distinction must be drawn between a legitimate attempt to impact on the public process, and an effort to bully one's way into dictating the level of growth in the county.

The campaign to bring Howard County planning and zoning decisions to referendum is reckless. The referendum process almost invariably oversimplifies complicated issues, shrinking them to a few words in a ballot question.

In complex land-use planning, it is hardly enough upon which to make informed decisions. Moreover, it erodes the foundation of representative government. Using the plaintiff's logic, there is no need for a County Council so long as the community believes that an issue is significant enough to put to a vote of the populous. Under such a system, decisions would be made only every four years, and council members would spend their terms hawking referendums until Election Day.

The current system of governing in these matters has well served Howard County residents, even if it has disappointed a few. The plaintiffs' proposals remain radically misguided.

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