Land plan foes present petition

They want Nov. vote in Baltimore County on condemnation

15,993 signatures gathered

May 31, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The hard work of an ever-widening band of volunteers went on display yesterday in Annapolis, where grass-roots activists delivered the signatures of 15,993 Baltimore County voters seeking a November referendum on whether the government should be permitted to condemn land for economic development.

"More and more people are hearing about it, and we are getting signatures from all over the county," said Rick Impallaria, owner of an auto body shop and leader of Essex-Middle River Community in Action. "The momentum is really building."

Impallaria and other organizers are hoping to overturn SB 509, a bill passed by the General Assembly this year that would allow Baltimore County to seize land in portions of Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown and sell or give it to developers.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger fought for the law, saying it was needed for economic development in depressed areas. In particular, the county has long envisioned a waterfront tourist destination in the Middle River area with spruced-up marinas and restaurants.

Critics say that the condemnation law is a land-grab that would benefit the wealthy and that they are distressed it was rushed through the legislature with scant community input. Since its passage, they have been vowing to reverse the decision of legislators through a popular vote.

Organizers had until today to submit one-third of 24,136 valid signatures needed to trigger a fall vote. They appear to have collected nearly twice the required number by the interim deadline and are hoping to gather more than 30,000 names by the final deadline, June 30. The total of 24,136 represents 10 percent of the Baltimore County vote in the 1998 gubernatorial election.

"We all took a break over Memorial Day weekend," said Janice Hundt, a leader of the petition drive. "We're hitting the graduations and the awards ceremonies. This week, we'll be going to school performances and band concerts. There's a lot of events going on, and that's where we'll be."

The petitions delivered yesterday to the secretary of state's office will eventually arrive at the Baltimore County Board of Supervisors of Elections for verification. Within 20 days, organizers will know how many signatures are valid.

State elections officials say they tell petition organizers to gather at least 20 percent more signatures then are required. Some signatures are eliminated because the signer is not a registered voter or gave a wrong address or incomplete information.

Sometimes, the safety margin needs to be wider.

This year, a new political party, the Constitution Party, was certified in Maryland. Organizers needed 10,000 valid signatures to create the party, and they submitted a petition with more than 15,000 names. Once election officials culled the lists, they were left with 10,043 valid signatures, said Donna Duncan, a State Board of Elections division director.

Opponents of the condemnation plan say they submitted only signatures that they had double-checked.

"We go over them with a fine-toothed comb," Impallaria said. "We go through the phone book. We fill in birth dates. We really feel a high majority of them is going to be accepted."

Recognizing the mounting strength of the petition drive, Ruppersberger decided two weeks ago to sign the petition, agreeing that voters should decide the issue that he helped push through the General Assembly with a lobbying effort.

Political observers called the executive's decision risky, saying the law could be overturned at the ballot box given the distrust of government in many parts of the county.

Ruppersberger was out of town yesterday but issued a statement through his communications director that reaffirmed his support for putting the question on the ballot.

"Even if the petition drive does not succeed, the county executive is committed to explaining the facts about this law and how he believes it can help our neighborhoods," the statement said.

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