Officials to look at zoning

Re-examination set for changes affected by the Comp Lite bill


Howard County officials plan to examine this week dozens of zoning changes affected by the Comp Lite zoning bill, now that the hotly contested measure likely will not appear on the November election ballot.

Some of the properties covered by the 38 specific zoning changes and 49 zoning law changes in the bill are also the subject of separate, individual zoning cases begun after it appeared the bill would go to referendum.

Some of the cases - including housing proposed for the 13.5-acre Morsberger property on Old Frederick Road in Marriottsville and a proposed office building at historic Woodlawn Manor - are still pending before the Zoning Board or the County Council, so the apparent death of the referendum has left their status unclear.

The county's Board of Elections decided last week not to challenge a court ruling knocking the contested bill off the November ballot, but the board has until tomorrow to ask for a Maryland Court of Appeals review if the members change their minds.

The state Court of Special Appeals ruled that the summary of the complex zoning bill on each petition was not detailed enough to give voters enough information to know what they were signing. Referendum advocates had insisted that each person gathering signatures carry a copy of the entire 95-page bill and that the summary was approved by the county election administrator, following county law.

Angela Beltram, who led the campaign to petition the bill to referendum, is upset over the Board of Elections' decision not to pursue the case, which she sees as its failure to support Betty L. Nordaas, the election administrator.

"She could not have done anything more than she did. She bent over backward [to be careful] because she was new," Beltram said of Nordaas, who was hired by the board in September 2004. Beltram's group, Citizens for an Open Process for Everyone, is exploring its options, she said, but because the group was not a party to the legal case it has no standing to appeal.

"We're stuck," Beltram said.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, said she plans to sit down tomorrow with Paul Johnson, senior assistant county solicitor, to review all the cases.

"Where there's a difference, we have to sort out what the difference means," she said. "Some of the bills are improvements on Comp Lite," she added, and "make sense to adopt."

One bill approved by the council Monday night increases the required percentage of moderate-income units for projects using a Planned Senior Community zoning designation. Under Comp Lite, no more than 20 percent of units for such a project would have to be for moderate-income people, but under the bill approved Monday night, that becomes to 33 percent.

On Monday night, the council also tabled a bill that would affect how close a proposed 74,000-square-foot, two-story office building could be built to Woodlawn Manor and to open land holding the ruins of former slave quarters owned by the Columbia Association. The developer got the setbacks he wanted in Comp Lite, so the new council bill might now be moot.

Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who doubles as Zoning Board chairman, said he would like to postpone a board hearing tonight on whether to rezone the Morsberger property to allow 20 homes to be built there - a zoning change granted in Comp Lite. "My plan is just to cancel it one way or another," he said. "It can always be brought back."

The council also approved a resolution introduced by Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, seeking authority for the county to form a residential electricity co-op, but events appear to have overtaken the measure.

The General Assembly-approved BGE bill postponed all but about 15 percent of the company's intended 72 percent rate increase until next year. That leaves rates still below market, which means a co-op could never match them.

Still, Ulman's resolution passed with unanimous support. It asks the state Public Service Commission to declare a lack of competition, opening the way under state law for the county to form the co-op for residents.

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