Major political consequences are being predicted after a decision Thursday by Howard County's Board of Elections not to challenge a court ruling striking down a referendum item on the Comp Lite omnibus zoning measure, meaning the issue likely will not appear on November's ballot.
Board Chairman Guy Harriman said his board decided not to ask the Court of Appeals for a ruling because "this is really a matter for the legislature. Should zoning issues be subject to a referendum?" is a question either the County Council or the state legislature should answer, he said.
Referendum supporters are angry, though the eventual winners and losers are uncertain.
County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican running for county executive, seems well-positioned to benefit from that anger because he was the only council member to vote against Comp Lite, while Democratic rival Ken Ulman voted for it.
But things may not be that simple.
"Some people are not in favor of [Merdon] either," said Angela Beltram, the former county councilwoman who led the petition referendum drive. Some voters may not want any of the current officeholders, she said, but might prefer the two others running for office.
Democrat Harry M. Dunbar bills himself as the slow-growth candidate; independent candidate C. Stephen Wallis has criticized what he termed "unbridled growth," and wants an independent, appointed Zoning Board.
Beltram appears to blame Ulman and his fellow councilman, Guy Guzzone, who is seeking a seat in the House of Delegates, for their votes in favor of the Comp Lite bill.
But the pair of Democrats have their defenders, too - even among referendum supporters.
"At least Ken Ulman and Guy are trying to make zoning reforms," said Howard Weinstein, who was angry at the board's decision to let the referendum die, after he spent months fighting a proposed office park at Routes 100 and 103 near his Ellicott City home.
The Democrats proposed changing the comprehensive zoning process and have a package of other reforms due for introduction in the County Council tomorrow night. "They've been responsive," Weinstein said. "Comprehensive zoning should be abolished."
Ulman is looking on the positive side.
"I'm focused on improving our land-use process in Howard County," he said. "That's something I have not heard from the other side. I've heard a lot of blame and criticism."
Merdon didn't comment on the political implications of the referendum issue, though he lamented the Board of Elections' decision to "prematurely end" the legal review as "unfortunate."
Dunbar, who has campaigned almost exclusively on a slow-growth, anti-development theme, said the referendum's failure would benefit him.
"It would mean the citizens are outraged and that the slow-growth candidate gets elected," Dunbar said.
Wallis, who is seeking enough petition signatures to become a certified candidate, said defeating the referendum won't remove the issue but likely will hurt candidates who voted for the Comp Lite bill.
Mary Catherine Cochran, a community activist and another leader in the referendum effort, said "a general disgruntlement of citizens on development is building into a crescendo of dissatisfaction that could be a huge wave by election time." Who's hurt or helped by that wave depends on what candidates say and do.
"If they're just hiding, that's a problem," she said.
County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a Republican who is not running this year, takes a similar view.
"Traveling through the county, politicians are not looked on very favorably. It could be a bad year for incumbents," he said.
Development tensions can pop up in almost any forum, it seems, from the first meeting of County Executive James N. Robey's new Housing Task Force on Tuesday at the county's Gateway Building, to a forum the next morning in Oakland Mills for 18 candidates running for General Assembly.
The task force is trying to find more ways to provide affordable housing for working families in Howard, which brought a suggestion bound to be unpopular with development critics.
Earl Arminger, a builder working on a mixed commercial-residential development on U.S. 1 intended to house people with limited incomes, raised a touchy question.
"There's a very simple reason why housing costs too much in Howard County," Arminger said. "The supply [of housing] is artificially pushed down. We're way, way below what we ought to be building," he said.
At the candidates forum Wednesday held by the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for 150 local human service agencies, a question about the effects of the federal base closings evoked a similar comment from Del. Gail H. Bates, a Republican from the western county.
She thinks housing will be the primary stress point, she said.
"We're going to have to find a way to loosen up" the supply of housing. Howard County limits developers to 1,850 new homes a year.
Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, replied that the county has sharply limited development this decade, and he warned that following Bates' advice could cause a return to crowded schools.
"We have to be very careful about expanding that [building limit]," he said.