Government of the Rich, For the Rich


October 16, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

In rural Highland in Howard County, there are still rolling pastures and rows of cornfields; farms that have been in some families for generations.

But along some of the newer roads are quiet subdivisions where estate homes have been built on multi-acre lots carved from land that long ago lost its agrarian usefulness.

Despite this encroachment, there are no sidewalks or traffic lights, only huge homes on flat land separated by fenced pastures and large expanses of manicured, green lawns.

This is Susan Gray country; tony, upper-crust and perfectly luscious.

To get to the large, white colonial where the Democratic candidate for Howard County executive resides, one must travel down a long road off of Route 216. That road turns into another, which eventually dead ends where a "Keep Out" sign announces yet another, private road that is the lone access to Ms. Gray's house.

It is stately and exclusive.

And Susan Gray wants to keep it that way.

In her campaign for county executive, Ms. Gray likens herself to the common folk by noting that, she too, cannot afford a $1 million home. But if Ms. Gray is struggling, it is for something that only an extremely small fraction of people ever achieve.

In is not reverse snobbery to say that much of the Gray campaign is aimed at maintaining a status quo throughout Howard that preserves what she found when she moved here about a decade ago.

In her relentless fight with county government, Ms. Gray has called herself a champion of slow-growth policies, an environmentalist, a preservationist.

To her opponents, she is an elitist whose bigoted views appeal to those who feel townhouse dwellers are unsuitable neighbors, unless the neighborhood is distant Columbia.

I think of Susan Gray as someone engaged in the most nakedly aggressive power grabs this county has seen in some time.

It is not only her designs on the executive's office that lead me to this conclusion; that would be bold enough given her stated goal of radically scaling back on development to curb the rampant growth she feels is harming the county.

But Ms. Gray's thirst for power is even more evident in her support for a charter amendment that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot, that, if approved, would give the next county executive broad, new discretion over land-use decisions throughout Howard.

As the author of Charter Amendment B, Ms. Gray wants to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the county by wresting control of major zoning decisions from the County Council (when it sits as the Zoning Board) and turning control over to the executive.

She would do this by requiring that the council make zoning decisions in a way that would, for the first time, give the executive veto power in such matters.

The potential of executive veto will most assuredly mean that zoning changes that are controversial -- and many of them are -- will be more difficult to enact because they would require a 4-1 majority of the council to override a veto.

Even without a veto-prone executive, the charter amendment would allow residents to petition to have unpopular zoning decisions put before voters, further eroding the council's powers.

Changing the role the council plays in zoning decisions in Howard County is a good idea, but this is not the way to go about it.

For all its faults, one value of the current system is that it is designed to minimize the influence of outside forces on zoning decisions.

Many residents suspect that while the rules don't allow council members to discuss a pending zoning case with them, free-spending developers have back room access that gives them a leg up. There is no evidence of this, but the suspicion is rampant, fueled heavily by Ms. Gray, who has done countless pro-bono work on behalf of disgruntled residents' groups.

The idea of having a body shielded from influence while it makes zoning decisions is important. It should be high on the list of things to be studied when a charter revision committee is appointed next year. But Charter Amendment B would open the process to all kinds of outside influences that have no place in zoning.

More than anything, it fits neatly within Ms. Gray's plan to take over county government and impose a vision that includes protecting big homes on private roads in exclusive neighborhoods like hers.

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

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