Charter panel votes to weaken initiative Measure allows referendum on land-use decisions

October 31, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Charter Review Commission proposed last night weakening a year-old initiative aimed at giving citizens more say in land-use decisions.

The unanimous vote by the commission represents another salvo in the battle between county officials and proponents of Question B, which allows citizens to petition major land-use decisions to referendum.

"It clarifies the one unclear issue," said commission Chairman Thomas M. Meachum. That issue, he said, was a type of discretionary zoning called a "floating" zone.

The problem with that, say Question B supporters, is such a "clarification" takes away citizens' referendum power over much of the county.

"What they've essentially done is decided that all of Columbia can be developed without people having referendum power," said Fulton resident Peter J. Oswald, one of the leaders of the Question B movement.

Question B "didn't sit well with certain powers in the county," Mr. Oswald said. "It gave broad powers to people, and they're trying to limit people's power."

The county's elected officials uniformly opposed Question B, which was created last year by slow-growth activists and petitioned to referen-dum on the November ballot. It won overwhelmingly, but its popularity did nothing for its acceptance by officials entrusted with translating the charter change into county zoning regulations. They did so grudgingly and, in the view of Question B proponents, incorrectly.

Some types of zoning changes, including all of those done in Columbia, would have been affected by Question B.

Citing legal problems with that arrangement, the County Council adopted regulations that excluded those types of changes and consequently violated the new charter language.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker asked the review commission to consider correcting the disparity, and last night the panel adopted a recommendation to do so. The proposal does away with all of Question B's substantive language about zoning, replacing it with simpler, more limited language.

As adopted by county voters, Question B allows referendums on "any amendment, restatement or revision to the zoning regulations or Howard County zoning maps" with the exception of one type of rezoning. That type requires legal proof of one of two things: a mistake in the existing zoning or a substantial change in the character of the neighborhood.

That exception was intended by Question B's authors to protect the rights of individual property owners, but county officials argued that it didn't go far enough. That's because many modern zoning categories, such as Columbia's new town zoning, don't require proof of mistake or change.

The commission's proposal does away with Question B's sweeping language and replaces it with a list of specific land-use decisions that can be petitioned to referendum: the county's General Plan, which sets general land-use policy for 20 years; comprehensive rezoning, which enacts that policy; and zoning regulation changes.

Mr. Meachum said that any other types of land-use would be excluded under the proposal.

Mr. Oswald said he also was disturbed by other actions by the commission to weaken citizens' ability to check the actions of county government.

The commission has voted to recommend eliminating limits on the number of signatures required for petitioning future charter changes and for petitioning county laws -- including land-use decisions -- onto the ballot.

Mr. Oswald and his fellow Question B organizers, for instance, had to collect 10,000 signatures to put the question on the ballot last November. The commission recommended doing away with that ceiling and requiring the signatures of 10 percent of the county's registered voters. With more than 100,000 voters countywide, that has the effect of making future ballot initiatives more difficult.

The commission has scheduled a Nov. 13 work session and, possibly, a final one on Nov. 20. Members then will publish a draft of their recommendations and hold a public hearing, possibly in January.

To be enacted, the proposed charter changes must be approved by the County Council and voters in next year's elections.

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