Zoning initiative triggers clash over cable TV ads

October 26, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Sun Staff Writer

The highly emotional debate over Howard County's zoning initiative intensified yesterday as proponents complained to the state prosecutor about a cable TV campaign that ridicules the plan.

Supporters of Question B, who are likened to "that kid who never let anyone play in his tree fort" and "Invasion of the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard)" in three 30-second segments, said the advertisements are illegal because they don't contain an "authority line" telling viewers who paid to produce and place the cable television spots.

"It's really frustrating to see this kind of thing happening," said Fulton resident Peter Oswald, who led the petition drive that put the initiative on the ballot.

"I don't think it's appropriate for us to be characterized this way," he said.

The ads are part of a campaign to defeat the ballot measure, which has included newspaper advertisement campaigns and fliers -- all distributed by the Howard County Citizens Coalition Against Question B.

The group is composed of the Howard County Economic Forum, the Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, the county National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the county Farm Bureau, the Columbia Association and other county business and civic organizations.

Coalition members told the state prosecutor's office that the missing authority line was an oversight and that it will be included when the segments are shown during the next two weeks before the Nov. 8 election.

The coalition argues that despite the momentary distraction of the missing authority line, the ad campaign is an important effort because the initiative would help "the selfish interests of a select few."

"It sounds like it gives citizens more say, but it doesn't," said Cole Schnorf, president of the Howard County Economic Forum, who appears in parts of the television ads.

The measure, opponents say, would allow developers and other special interests to cut deals with council members behind closed doors. They also say it would reduce citizen review and discussion of zoning issues from an infinite amount of time to 95 days.

"Mr. Oswald did not fully understand the complexity of what he's dealing with," said Anita Iribe, president of the Howard County League of Women Voters. "This is not a ruse. This is a genuine attempt . . . to let people know that this is a very complicated issue and should not be voted on hastily."

First to oppose

The League of Women Voters completed a study of the initiative in June and was the first organization to oppose it.

"It sounds good on the face of it," said William Waff, president of the county citizens association. "It sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but it doesn't do what they say it does."

Ten thousand voters signed petitions to get the initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot.

If it is approved next month, county residents would be allowed ** to place major land use proposals on the ballot in future elections. It also would allow the county executive to veto zoning changes made by the County Council.

"It just makes comprehensive zoning like every other law," Mr. Oswald said. "It's not a revolutionary idea. It's checks and balances."

Supporters of Question B argue that current zoning procedures distance average citizens from the zoning process.

The five-member county council approves the General Plan (a 20-year growth blueprint) as a resolution -- not a legislative bill. Unlike bills, resolutions are not subject to referendum petitions or county executive veto.

Under current law, council members make up the zoning board and vote -- as a quasi-judicial body -- on comprehensive rezoning, a countywide enactment of land use policy by the board every six to eight years.

Because the zoning board's vote on comprehensive rezoning is not a bill, citizens may not talk with their council members about those zoning issues outside of zoning board hearings.

If comprehensive rezoning were classified as a legislative bill, citizens could discuss zoning issues in private with council members.

Mr. Oswald said the initiative would give citizens the right to call to referendum any zoning decision passed by the zoning board; allow them to talk with council members throughout the entire comprehensive zoning process and allow the county executive to veto any council zoning decision.

The initiative is not retroactive so it would affect only future zoning changes in the county.

Sierra Club support

So far, the only organization to come out in support of the measure is the county chapter of the Sierra Club, a 900-member environmental organization.

Members say that without the initiative changes, the "rampant growth" slated for the county will bring too much trash and traffic.

"We feel that recent zoning decisions that were made are probably not in the best interest of the environment," said Harry Brodie, the club's political committee chairman.

Other questions

County voters will be asked to decide two other questions when they go to the polls next month.

One proposal, Question A, would amend the County Charter's merit system/promotions requirement by reducing the number of candidates county government must consider for promotion or for a new position from 10 to one.

The original Charter required, as a protection for county employees, that all appointments be made from the five highest eligible candidates, on the basis of examination.

The third ballot item is Question C, which would allow County Council members to have the month of August off each year.

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