Council faulted on referendum

October 17, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Columbia's top elected body has joined a slew of county business, civic and human service organizations in opposing a ballot initiative that would give Howard residents the power to overturn unpopular land-use decisions.

But the Columbia Council was accused by Peter J. Oswald, leader of the petition drive that put the zoning referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot, of listening only to the initiative's opponents and ignoring his requests to present his group's research.

The council voted 8-1 Thursday, with one abstention, to oppose the referendum. "This would impede good land-use planning," said Columbia Councilwoman Norma Rose of Wilde Lake village, who took the lead against the measure.

Ms. Rose contended that the initiative would jeopardize future "mixed-use" developments that combine diverse housing, shops and employment centers in one area, as is called for by the concept underlying much of Columbia.

"It's a more efficient use of land and costs less," she said. "If we support the kind of community we have, we have to speak out."

Mr. Oswald said the Columbia Council's handling of the issue was similar to other organizations, including the Howard County League of Women Voters.

The council directs the Columbia Association, the nonprofit, private corporation that maintains Columbia's parklands and runs its recreational facilities and community programs.

"I conclude from this that people don't want to hear both sides of the issue," said Mr. Oswald, a Fulton resident whose group collected about 11,000 petition signatures from among 104,000 registered county voters.

"I think it's clear the people opposing this so far are of considerable political influence, including the Columbia Association," he said. "Perhaps they would prefer retaining that influential position and not jeopardizing it by giving an awful lot of citizens the opportunity to help guide how the county changes in the future."

The measure would allow residents to petition for a referendum on future county comprehensive rezoning plans and changes in the General Plan, a blueprint for development.

The referendum was prompted by residents' frustration over zoning changes recommended in the 1990 General Plan and enacted by the county Zoning Board -- the five County Council members -- in the western and eastern comprehensive rezonings of 1992 and 1993.

Last year, for example, hundreds of residents unsuccessfully opposed the designation of an 820-acre "mixed-use center" allowing apartments, houses, retail shops and other businesses in Fulton, where only 3-acre homesites had been permitted.

Mr. Oswald said he wrote a letter in November 1993 to a Columbia Association employee explaining the referendum and his interest in presenting his views.

He said he asked the employee, an acquaintance, to pass the letter along to association managers and the council. He also said he discussed the letter by phone with Columbia Council Chairwoman Karen Kuecker earlier this year, but that she didn't follow up on the issue.

Ms. Kuecker said that the first time she saw the letter was in a packet prepared by association staff at Thursday night's meeting. She said she may have talked to Mr. Oswald in the past and that his name sounded "vaguely familiar." But she said she was not aware that he had any connection to the zoning petition effort.

By contrast, the League of Women Voters' president came to the Sept. 22 council meeting to express the group's opposition to the initiative and to urge the council to take a position. The council put the issue on its agenda for action last Thursday.

On Thursday, the president of the Howard County Economic Forum, an umbrella group for county business and civic organizations, told the council that the initiative could adversely affect business and land-use planning.

Helen Ruther, Columbia's Town Center covenant adviser and a former 15-year county Planning Board member, also told the council that zoning decisions should not be subject to referendum.

"The next-door neighbors are not always in the best position to decide what is in the best interest of the community," she said.

Columbia Councilman David W. Berson said the council didn't invite any particular groups to make presentations on the initiative, adding that anyone is welcome to come and speak at council meetings.

But Councilman Charles Rees, who cast the dissenting vote, said, "I think it's only fair if we take a position that we hear both sides first."

He said he doubted that most council members fully understood the complexities of the issue and that the council had not done its own research on the initiative's possible effects.

Mr. Oswald said he's disappointed that the council didn't act "a little more aboveboard.

"When we were circulating the petition, we heard a lot of people expressing concerns about the Columbia Association and how it represents the citizens," he said.

"I'm an outsider. I don't pay the CA fees. But it's no wonder."

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