Democrats back off on rezoning change

Complaints over timing of the County Council's vote on reforms lead to decision

June 14, 2006|By LARRY CARSON | LARRY CARSON,SUN REPORTER

Democrats back off on rezoning change County Councilman Ken Ulman said at a candidates forum on development that the council's Democrats have decided not to introduce a bill next month to change Howard County's once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process.

Ulman, a Democrat and candidate for county executive, told more than 150 residents at Terra Maria, a development on Frederick Road in Ellicott City, that a bill to improve community notification in zoning board cases and allow for mediation in some contested cases will be introduced - but not the larger reform measure announced last week.

The council's three Democrats said last week they want to divide the county into separate community areas and do a master plan for each area in subsequent years instead of waiting an entire decade. This, the Democrats said, would give residents more opportunity to participate in rezoning decisions near them.

But the idea prompted some complaints, both about the concept of dividing the county and the timing of the proposal. A bill introduced July 3 would be voted on at the end of that month because the council doesn't meet in August.

"We will take time to talk to more people," Ulman said. That view was endorsed yesterday by Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who did not attend the Monday night forum for county executive and County Council candidates.

"There is no rush," Guzzone said. "This was really trying to put out some ideas."

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican also running for executive, sharply criticized the Democrats' comprehensive rezoning reforms, calling them a "divide-and-develop approach to zoning" that will wear out and isolate community groups with a continuous rezoning process that will help developers.

Merdon, the only council member to vote against the contested Comp Lite bill that was petitioned to referendum by the Citizens for An Open Process for Everyone (COPE) group, which sponsored the forum, said the Comp Lite bill "was shoved down citizens' throats. The people in charge of that development process should be thrown out of office. I was the only council member who stood up," he said, adding that "Ulman should be held accountable."

Guzzone was council chairman at the time the bill passed, and Ulman supported it. The bill proposed 38 rezonings left over from the previous year's comprehensive rezoning, and focused mostly on the U.S. 40 corridor. Inclusion of a zoning change to allow a church expansion on St. John's Lane prompted the voter revolt and put the entire issue on the November ballot.

Ulman said he's frustrated with the current comprehensive rezoning process, which is why he supports a change that would "notify every citizen," in "a process to engage every citizen," and also weave funding for capital projects like roads and schools into the new system.

C. Stephen Wallis, a county school principal seeking to gather enough signatures to become an independent candidate for county executive, supported Ulman's plan.

"Frankly, it isn't a bad idea," he said. "It would bring the community in early on."

Harry M. Dunbar, a slow-growth Democratic executive candidate, said Merdon, 35, and Ulman, 32, are too young to be county executive, adding, "there's too much development money" in their campaign treasuries.

Dunbar, 61, said he helped gather signatures for the petition drive against the Comp Lite bill to protect the county against "whispered backroom zoning."

Merdon accused Ulman of supporting a change in comprehensive rezoning as a reaction to that petition drive.

"Ulman didn't like that. He divided you off," Merdon said.

Ulman did not respond to Merdon's criticisms, but later told the group he was "disappointed in the tenor of Mr. Merdon's last answer."

"I still have yet to hear any other thoughts about how we can do better," he said in closing.

Later, Ulman said, "I'm really focused on being positive. We've got a great county, and the citizens deserve better than just attacks."

Merdon defended his criticisms of Ulman, saying, "It is not negative to point out his voting record."

Merdon was questioned about another development link - his visit to Las Vegas last month during the International Conference of Shopping Centers convention attended by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"It was a vacation paid for 100 percent by my wife and myself. We've never been there before," Merdon said. "The shopping center conference was there. So what?"

Questions posed to the candidates produced several specific ideas on development - and on county planning director Marsha S. McLaughlin, who was in the audience.

Council candidate Courtney Watson, a Democrat running in District 1, suggested passing a law requiring that projects approved but delayed for years be forced to requalify under county laws on school and traffic crowding; that all zoning waiver requests and decisions be posted online; and that new annual fees pay for an inspector to check on conditional-use zoning cases.

Ulman suggested charging developers a fee that the county could use to hire experts to do traffic and environmental studies, rather than the current system in which developers hire their own experts.

Merdon said he proposed the same thing in 1998, but a citizens committee later rejected it.

Only Dunbar criticized McLaughlin, saying he's "deeply disappointed" with her department.

Merdon and Ulman said they plan to work with her if elected.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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