Group aims to put omnibus rezoning bill on ballot


Political Notebook

April 10, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A DETERMINED group of Ellicott City residents planned to begin this weekend collecting the first of what it hopes will be enough signatures to put the County Council's contested omnibus rezoning bill on the general election ballot next year.

"We don't think it's going to be difficult at all" to gather the required 2,500 valid names by May 10, and then at least 2,500 more by June 10, in order to petition council bill No. 2 to referendum, said Angela Beltram, a former council member who is leading the drive.

"We distributed 50 packets," she said, and volunteers were to begin appearing at local supermarkets, spring soccer games, post offices, senior centers and libraries, armed with petitions and explanatory cards to tell people what they are about.

Beltram and members of a coalition of community groups are angry at what they felt was a confused, citizen-hostile rezoning process the County Council called "Comp Lite" because it sought to finish rezonings first discussed last year during the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning. A major focus was the U.S. 40 corridor from Patapsco Valley State Park to Turf Valley, which planners hoped to prepare for a more urban future.

The spark for the petition was anger that the council rezoned 28 acres on St. Johns Lane north of U.S. 40 for Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church's planned expansion, but some people in Elkridge, North Laurel and elsewhere are also unhappy about what they feel will be congestion prompted by rezonings for new homes and commercial incursions on their established neighborhoods.

Watson raising funds

Most Howard County political observers believe Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, will run next year for the 1st District County Council seat occupied by Christopher J. Merdon.

After all, that is the path her father, Edward Cochran, followed 35 years ago. Merdon, a Republican, is expected to run for county executive.

But Watson, a Democrat, would not discuss her ambition at a well-attended fund-raiser Wednesday in Columbia, as she listened to praise from County Executive James N. Robey and others. The signs outside the event, held at the Restaurant Association of Maryland headquarters off Stevens Forest Road, merely said, "Courtney Watson for Howard County."

Robey told the crowd inside that "Courtney and I talked some months ago. I told her she ought to raise some money for her future."

"It's in her blood and in her genes -- not politics, but public service," Robey said about her family heritage, which includes community activist Mary Catherine Cochran, Watson's sister.

Watson, the mother of three and vice president of an insurance firm in addition to her school board service, said she doesn't have to decide what to run for until next year, so she won't.

"I can't believe I am 2 1/2 years through my term. It feels like I was just elected," she told the crowd of more than 100.

Five school board seats will be up for election next year on an expanded seven-member board, she said, but there's more.

"The County Council will lose its three most experienced members, and we're losing our county executive. There are a lot of positions up in the air in 2006," she said, including some in the General Assembly.

Watson's husband, Richard, and her mother, Joan, are both Realtors, and she serves on the restaurant group's board, so she has a wide range of links to people in business, politics, education, and community activism.

"I've been impressed at the depth of her knowledge, her deference to people and her ability to be a problem solver. She's an impressive lady," said attorney Gerald Richman, who with his wife, Sara, was a $250 contributor.

"What am I supporting her for? I don't know," said Gerald Richman, "but I believe citizens ought to pony up money" for good candidates.

Watson reported a balance of $11,000 in potential campaign funds in January, raised through mail appeals and donations.

Quinter-Bates acrimony

There was never much political love lost between Howard County House delegation Chairman Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat, and Republican Del. Gail H. Bates, but the sad fate of a bill to raise county marriage license fees to benefit domestic abuse programs brought their relations into even clearer focus.

The delegation unanimously approved the marriage license fee increase from $35 to $50 to provide $25,000 a year to the Domestic Violence Center in Columbia, but despite its local status, the bill fell victim to the national debate over gay marriage. To prevent its becoming a vehicle for conservative Republican attempts to force a vote on a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between men and women, General Assembly leaders froze a handful of marriage-related bills in committees.

Quinter tried to save Howard's bill by appealing to Bates, who had voted for it in delegation, but he found it was payback time.

Last fall, Quinter at first refused to allow four late-filed Bates' bills a hearing before the delegation, though he later relented. Only one, asking for $500,000 in state money for an Ellicott City garage, was approved, and that died in the Senate.

But this time, Quinter needed Bates on the marriage fee bill.

"I talked to Gail Bates, to ask her to help hold off her fellow anti-gay-marriage forces," Quinter said.

But Bates said, "It's rather amusing to me that after stuffing me on every bill this year, [Quinter is] asking me for help. It's not my bill," she said, noting that she is not on the House Judiciary Committee, where the bill sits, while Quinter is.

"It ... won't keep me awake at night," she said, referring to the measure's apparent slow death.

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