Planning issue OK'd for ballot

August 07, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

County voters will have a chance to decide whether they should have a say in county land use planning, now that nearly 10,800 signatures to put the question on the Nov. 8 ballot have been verified by county elections officials.

"I feel very gratified. I couldn't be any happier that that part of the effort's over," said Peter J. Oswald, organizer of the initiative. "I'm still very concerned about what officials of the county and some of the people that are against this are doing" to defeat the ballot question, he said.

The initiative grew out of frustration over zoning changes called for in the 1990 General Plan and enacted by the county Zoning Board in the western and eastern comprehensive rezonings of 1992 and 1993.

Last year, for instance, hundreds of residents protested the proposed designation of an 820-acre "mixed-use" center allowing apartments, houses, shops and other businesses in Fulton, where only 3-acre homesites had been allowed.

The proposed charter change would require that comprehensive rezonings -- done about once every seven or eight years -- and updates of the county's General Plan be approved as County Council bills.

As legislative bills, they would be subject to a veto by the county executive and a referendum if residents could complete the same petition process Mr. Oswald did.

The General Plan is now enacted as a resolution, which is not subject to referendum or executive veto, and comprehensive rezonings are approved by the Zoning Board, a quasi-judicial body made up of County Council members whose decisions can be appealed only to Circuit Court.

Although the question has now been certified for the November ballot, it lacks support from most candidates for County Council or County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Mr. Oswald said that in informal polling of candidates in June, he found County Council candidates tended to be against the charter change, while state legislative candidates generally supported it.

Three of the exceptions are county executive candidate Susan Gray and council candidates John W. Taylor, a Democrat vying for the west county seat, and Gary Prestianni, a Republican who is seeking the east Columbia seat. They helped collect signatures for the petition, Mr. Oswald said.

The petitioners turned in 12,993 signatures, but 2,202 were declared invalid because they were duplicates, illegible or, in 1,565 cases, signers were not registered to vote. About 102,000 registered voters live in the county.

Mr. Oswald said council candidates' reluctance to embrace the referendum is "obvious -- they're the ones that lose some of their control by virtue of giving the citizens additional control."

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat and Zoning Board chairman during the last round of comprehensive rezonings, said he opposes the charter change. "I just felt that land use zoning decisions should not be done by plebiscite," Mr. Gray said. "I don't know how many of the county's citizens would want their property put to referendum.

"In 1968, the voters of this county decided that zoning should be done [by council members, sitting as the Zoning Board]. If the voters in 1994 decide that it should be done in a different way, that's what we'll abide by," he said.

Mr. Gray's opponent in the Sept. 13 primary, former county Planning Board member Kathryn Mann, said she, too, had reservations about the ballot question but had concluded it was a good step toward comprehensive restructuring of the zoning process. "I'm very sympathetic to their concerns, honestly. But I really think that the big concern is that you've got a lot of land-use decisions that are made outside of comprehensive rezoning, and you're not able to take those to referendum," she said.

Those often controversial interim rezonings, such as the one that created the 682-acre Waverly Woods II mixed-used project in Marriottsville and Woodstock in 1993, are not addressed by the ballot question.

Mr. Oswald said he was especially concerned that the Howard County League of Women Voters opposed the initiative without hearing from him about it first. Anita M. Iribe, president of the league, said the issue was studied by a committee of eight members, then put to a vote of about a third of the league's 126 members.

The study committee included former County Council members Angela Beltram and Lloyd Knowles, who also served on the Planning Board, former Planning Board members Helen Ruther and Ms. Iribe. Also on the committee was Grace Kubofcik, a former zoning administrative assistant and a top aide to former County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo, who proposed the 1990 General Plan. Now that county elections officials have certified that activists have garnered enough signatures to get the charter amendment on the ballot, County Council members must decide how the ballot question will be worded.

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