Judge's ruling favors citizens

It deals a setback to landowners, who want to block a referendum that postpones zoning changes

December 23, 2005|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

A Howard County judge has ruled that petitions used to put a controversial County Council rezoning bill on November's election ballot were properly prepared and labeled, hurting efforts by landowners to defeat the referendum.

Judge Lenore R. Gelfman's decision dealt a setback to landowners trying to block a public referendum, but activist Angela Beltram and her supporters, who gathered more than 6,000 names to put the bill, known as "Comp Lite," before the voters, were happy with the judge's ruling.

"I think it's a victory for citizens' movements. A referendum is a citizen's basic right," Beltram said.

Joseph Mezzanote, one of several attorneys representing 15 landowners who brought the court action, said, "We disagree with the court's decision. We believe it's really an incorrect interpretation of Maryland law." An appeal is likely, he said.

Tuesday's decision dismissed a motion by the landowners to declare the petitions illegal and granted a motion by the county Board of Elections defending the summary of the issue used on the petitions. The ruling leaves unresolved a technical issue over constitutional due process.

At stake is the 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.

Mary Catherine Cochran, who also worked in the referendum campaign, said Gelfman's decision is important.

"The process for trying to determine the state and local laws for trying a petition were very convoluted and confusing, and there isn't anyone citizens can turn to for advice. We tried to follow the letter of the law. I'm glad the judge acknowledges we did the right thing," she said.

Beltram's group is upset about what members feel is growing development-caused congestion in Howard. But the petition drive was sparked by one issue: a rezoning for a major expansion of Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church on St. Johns Lane. The council voted, 4-1, to approve that and the entire bill, and County Executive James N. Robey signed it March 10.

The County Council approved the omnibus zoning bill in February and the suit was filed in June, but no hearing was held until November.

Attorney Albert J. Mezzanote Jr., who represented the landowners attacking the referendum's legality, argued that the petitions are illegal because the Board of Elections, the defendant in the case, used the title of the council bill as the description of the law on the petition sheets. (The Mezzanotes are brothers.)

But Gelfman rejected those arguments.

"The summary was neither misleading, nor unclear, nor did it circumvent or secrete the true purpose of the Act. In fact, the summary was the title of the legislation and it represented a fair and accurate summary of what the petition sought to address," she said in her decision.

Albert Mezzanote had argued that the summary was so filled with technical terms as to be impossible for petition signers to understand. Malcolm B. Kane, attorney for the board, said county law says that a bill's title or summary is proper on petitions.

Albert Mezzanote said during the hearing that he expects the case to end up in appeals court, but Beltram said her side has an advantage as the election draws closer.

"Time is getting short for them now," she said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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