Rezoning-bill issue awaits a decision

Judge puts off ruling in the Comp Lite fight


The fight to nullify the County Council-approved Comp Lite zoning bill could hang on a decision by Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman, though lawyers trying to defeat an effort to let the voters decide the issue predict an appeals court will have the final word.

At a hearing Friday in Howard County Circuit Court, Gelfman denied a motion by Malcolm B. Kane, the county Board of Elections attorney, to force Angela Beltram's citizens group to be a defendant in the case, but put off a ruling on opposing motions to dismiss each other's cases.

Beltram's group, Citizens for an Open Process for Everyone, or COPE, collected more than 6,000 signatures on petitions to force the bill onto the 2006 election ballot.

At stake is rezoning of 38 pieces of land - mainly along U.S. 40 and U.S. 1 - and changes to 48 provisions of the county zoning code. The referendum postponed the law's effective date.

Albert J. Mezzanote Jr., attorney for 15 landowners attacking the referendum's legality, argued that only a handful of points in the omnibus bill were issues, and that one - rezoning for expansion of a church on North St. Johns Lane - was the spark that set the petition drive in motion.

The legal argument centers on whether the county Board of Elections was correct in allowing the legislative title/summary of the Comp Lite bill to be used as the description of the law on the petitions.

Kane said the board relied on county law, which says a bill's summary or title is proper on petitions.

But Mezzanotte argued that the board is a state agency ruled by state, not county, law.

"The simple question is, did the board comply with state law when they certified the petition," Mezzanotte said. "We say, no they didn't."

He said, "There was no fair and accurate summary" of the bill for petition signers to read because the legislative title for such a large, comprehensive bill was so steeped in government jargon that an average person could not decipher its meaning.

Mezzanotte said several times during the hearing that he feels the case "likely" will end up in appeals court.

Gelfman said she would take the arguments under advisement and issue a decision later.

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