Zoning process given voice

Lobbying now OK during the once-a-decade effort

`It's public empowerment'

Formal hearings had been the only discussion forum

April 03, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Feel free to talk to your Howard County Council member about anything -- anything except rezoning cases.

Then the county's elected representatives put on their Zoning Board hats, and in that quasi-judicial atmosphere they are forbidden to listen to anyone outside of public hearings. It is a distinction that has long frustrated some residents.

But now people are free to lobby to their hearts' content as local leaders decide how to comprehensively rezone the county, setting development patterns for years to come. The once-a-decade process is being done legislatively for the first time, thanks to a citizen-initiated charter amendment passed by referendum in 1994.

"We're going to take advantage of it," said Cathi Higgins, whose citizens group, which is opposed to more commercial zones along Montgomery Road in Ellicott City, has met with three of the five councilmen. "We'll be lobbying them hard."

Paul T. Johnson, deputy county solicitor, said the shroud of silence surrounding comprehensive rezoning was so difficult for some to understand that a provision was added in time for the last go-round to give people a foot in the door: If someone insisted on speaking, the council member had to take notes and put it in the official record.

"You really weren't supposed to [talk], but everyone recognized the fact that those distinctions are hard to maintain, especially for people in the public who are used to speaking to their council person," Johnson said. "We knew that, inevitably, people would speak. It was a terrible position that [council members] were put in, to say, `I can't really talk to you; you have to come to the hearing.'"

Lynne Bergling of Ellicott City, who is active in zoning matters, thinks the new open season on lobbying helps level the playing field. The rule that used to gag people on comprehensive rezoning -- and still does for piecemeal rezoning of individual properties -- goes into effect only after the developer puts in an application.

Though Johnson said he has always advised council members not to discuss a proposal they know is about to be filed, Bergling insists that happens.

"The developers have the upper hand," said Bergling, vice president of the St. John's Community Association. "I don't know what that developer is going to file, but he does -- he can take the opportunity to lobby pre-filing. ... I know developers have gone and said `Could you support this if proposed?' as a barometer of how hard it may or may not be."

The people who made lobbying possible by supporting Question B in 1994 agreed with Bergling's point but also had a larger goal in mind: requiring that the county's General Plan for growth and the comprehensive rezoning that follows be passed as council bills. That way residents can overturn them by referendum.

"It's public empowerment," said Peter Oswald of Fulton, a Question B supporter. "Who better to decide how we think our county should grow?"

People have months to press their points on comprehensive rezoning. The council will not hold hearings until fall, with a vote expected by the end of the year.

So far, residents appear to be petitioning council members more than the developers are, although some attorneys have met with councilmen to speak for landowners requesting new zones.

Rob Moxley, whose Ellicott City development firm has two requests for comprehensive rezoning, said he did not realize that the council is now -- so to speak -- all ears. He said it would not make any difference to him. His proposals have not made residents upset, and he is not planning a lobbying blitz now that it is legal.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said he has heard from residents and developers on the pair of controversial proposals in his district, both by Route 108. The Dorsey's Search Village Board gave him the floor at a town meeting about one of the plans, which calls for office and apartment zoning.

"Politics is part of the process -- and having people get their message across is part of the process," said Ulman, who also has received much e-mail about proposals in other council districts. "I'm keeping an open mind on everything until it comes to us in the fall."

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, has heard from many residents concerned about the commercial zones requested along Montgomery Road and from people opposing a proposed rezoning on Frederick Road. Land-use attorneys have also met with him to argue their clients' side of things.

"I think it's easier on all the stakeholders to be able to communicate with their council member," Merdon said. "It also allows me to ask some questions I might not ask during a formal hearing. ... `What are your future plans for the property?' In a zoning hearing, they don't have to tell us."

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