Howard County officials and developers' attorneys might know what's going on when it comes to rezoning, but citizens say they often feel left out.
"Internally, it may seem like open government, but externally, it doesn't look like it," said Angela Beltram, a former County Council member who recently rallied seven U.S. 40-area community groups to join together in fighting what they see as commercial incursions on their vision of suburbia.
"I'm somebody who's computer literate and savvy, and it's very, very hard to keep up with what's going on," said Mary Catherine Cochran, an active player in the fight to keep commercial zoning away from older homes in her western Ellicott City neighborhood.
Howard County is completing the second year of its once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process. On Monday night, the County Council will vote on 41 rezoning issues.
But proposals that come before the council in the weeks before a vote -- such as an amendment to change zoning on a 32-acre parcel along U.S. 1 in Elkridge -- have raised complaints about fairness.
Council members submitted 46 amendments Feb. 7 that presented community groups with scores of new uses for land.
"A process that allows a substantive amendment introduced at the end of the game ... is a process that is fatally flawed," Cochran said at a recent public hearing.
Council members agree a review of the process is needed before it begins again in eight years -- after the next census and General Plan update -- but insist they need a chance to make proposals.
"We get to play in the game, too. We do need to examine the whole process, but the County Council has to have a say," Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon told Cochran at a Feb. 22 public hearing.
County Executive James N. Robey agreed.
"I sympathize with the council. The process is wide open. It's fair," he said, noting that the council has the right to offer changes to zoning proposals.
Several councilmen agreed the county should do a better job of notifying people who live near parcels up for rezoning. A rezoning request from Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church to add 350 parking spaces and a 90,000-square-foot building for more worship, classroom and community space caught some community members by surprise.
"We came into this process late after being, we feel, deliberately left out of this rezoning request," said Pat Casal, a St. Johns Lane-area resident who wrote to County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, about the request.
Merdon said that if the council had a chance to make suggestions or changes earlier in the process it could help.
This year's proposals were reviewed by the Robey administration before council members got a chance to make changes.
"The administration didn't come to me and ask if we wanted any properties in their bill," Merdon said. "I think the process could be changed on a number of different levels. Let the council put in properties we want reviewed right from the beginning."
Guzzone said that he and other council members have worked long hours to mediate disputes between residents, landowners and developers, and "there have been very few complaints" overall.
Guzzone added that the countywide rezoning process was much more open to the public this time than in the early 1990s, when the Zoning Board decided all issues and citizens had no right of appeal. This time, the County Council makes the final decisions through legislation, which can be taken to public referendum.
"It's been opened up incredibly. Access and availability has increased dramatically," Guzzone said.
Still, Guzzone said, "I'm willing to have a complete review of what happened."
Ulman, too, said improvements could be made.
"We have this notion that things are in the newspaper [legal ads] and that that's notification. This is such a big deal that we should go the extra mile next time around. It generally has been a good process," he said.
Ulman favors a charette-style process -- a sort of extended, intense, group brainstorming effort to help make rezoning less adversarial.
But he, like others, realizes that Howard's comprehensive rezoning comes so infrequently that few of this year's participants are likely to be around for the next round -- making quick revisions a more immediate priority.
"I might be dead by then. There will be different players," she said.