2 changes to charter are rejected Council opposes restrictions on referendum power

Struggle over Question B

Slow-growth forces declare major victory

court battle possible

June 04, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Slow-growth forces declared a major victory yesterday after the Howard County Council rejected two charter changes that would have restricted the referendum power of Question B.

The action may send Question B to the courts as both sides continue to struggle over its meaning. At stake is a means of control over development in a fast-growing county.

Voters passed Question B in fall 1994 to permit referendum drives as a way of overturning zoning decisions by the County Council sitting as the county Zoning Board.

But recently, the county's Charter Review Commission proposed two changes that could have weakened Question B by exempting certain types of properties and increasing the number of signatures needed for successful referendum drives.

Yesterday, a bipartisan coalition of council members, Democrat Mary C. Lorsung and Republican Dennis R. Schrader, blocked the first proposal.

The second didn't have enough support to warrant a vote.

The decision pleasantly surprised leaders of the slow-growth movement, who had planned a fight this summer and fall to save Question B from charter changes they believed would gut it.

"As long as Question B is in the arsenal of the citizens," said John W. Taylor of Highland, "you're probably going to see more moderate land-use decisions, which is [all] anybody wants."

Yesterday morning's council meeting was to consider the 17 proposals of the Charter Review Commission, which made its report in April after a year of study.

The council took a straw vote in preparation for a public hearing and formal action in July.

At least a two-thirds majority -- four of the five council members -- must support a charter change for it to be on the ballot in November.

The council delayed a straw vote on controversial changes to the county's merit pay system for employees. More discussion of that is scheduled for next week.

The trickiest issues yesterday concerned Question B.

Supporters of the measure had hoped Question B would allow citizens to call a referendum on all types of zoning decisions. But the county Office of Law interpreted the language to exempt certain cases of "floating" zoning.

All of Columbia, for example, has the floating zone designation "New Town," which makes the exemption especially important.

The Charter Review Commission recommended writing the floating zone exemption into the charter, but Lorsung of West Columbia and Schrader of North Laurel objected.

With just three votes, the proposal failed. It could return in July's meeting, but those on both sides of the issue said that is unlikely.

"The people spoke very clearly on Election Day," Schrader said at the meeting. "So maybe we should not be messing with this so soon afterward. If there's a problem in the courts, let the courts decide."

Fellow Republican Charles C. Feaga argued that it should be written into the charter to protect individual property rights from the whims of the electorate.

He urged Schrader to take this stronger stand on the issue. "Don't chicken out on this thing," Feaga said.

"I'm not chickening out," Schrader replied.

"You've got to be able to make something clear enough so it TTC doesn't have to go to the courts," Feaga said.

Even though the proposal failed, the Office of Law's interpretation will prevent referendum votes on floating zones -- at least for now.

Question B proponents said that defeating the charter change preserves important bargaining power for citizens fighting developments.

"I'm just overjoyed at this," said Peter Oswald of Fulton, a leader in the fight for Question B.

"If this thing had passed, it would have really taken away a lot of power that the people of Columbia have."

Question B also was involved in another commission proposal: to raise the number of signatures needed for a successful referendum.

The commission recommended changing the minimum, now 5,000 signatures, to 5 percent of the county's registered voters. That would have meant an immediate increase of more than 500 signatures. The number would have grown with the county's population.

The proposal had little support and died without a vote.

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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