Zoning legal step nears

Elections board must decide its referendum stand

July 19, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

The latest round in the ongoing legal fight over a referendum contesting several rezoning cases is going down to the wire.

The Howard County Board of Elections has until tomorrow to decide whether to oppose intervention in the case by a citizens group as well as a review by the state Court of Appeals of a lower court's ruling that invalidated the ballot measure.

The referendum would contest numerous rezoning cases approved last year during the process that is commonly referred to as "Comp Lite."

"We will respond, but we are still working on it," Guy L. Harriman, president of the Board of Elections said late yesterday. "We will have it finalized certainly by tomorrow ... but it may be Thursday before it's filed."

Harry Siegel, an attorney who is representing some landowners whose property has been thrown into limbo by the referendum, could not be reached for comment.

He previously has said that he would not discuss the case until he files with the court.

It is expected, though, that he will, in effect, ask the court to uphold the lower court's ruling by refusing to consider the case.

If the Court of Appeals accepts the case, it almost certainly will do so on an expedited basis, because the ballots for the November general election must be finalized within weeks.

The Court of Special Appeals nullified the referendum last month, ruling that petitions circulated among and signed by the public violated requirements by not fairly informing voters of the intent of the Comp Lite legislation.

State and county laws stipulate that such petitions must include accurate summaries of the provisions being challenged or the full text of the legislation.

A citizens group that was a principal factor in seeking the ballot measure this month asked the Court of Appeals to allow it to intervene in the case and to grant a review of the ruling nullifying the referendum.

The referendum has been an issue from the start. But so, too, was Comp Lite, which was an extension of the county's once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process.

Many people of various political persuasions and cutting across the usual pro-growth and anti-growth divide, complained privately that there was no legal basis for Comp Lite, although no lawsuits were filed to halt the process.

The county has consistently argued that it had the authority to extend the period for comprehensive rezoning.

Comp Lite was supposed to cover a relatively small number of parcels, but over the course of about a year more and more properties were added, culminating in legislation approved last year by the County Council that contained 38 separate and distinct map amendments and 49 pages of text amendments and totaling 91 pages.

Much of the opposition was in response to the council's approval of a rezoning request for 28 acres by Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City.

But the group that backed the referendum measure -- Citizens for an Open Process for Everyone (COPE) -- chose to oppose all rezoning contained in Comp Lite.

It succeeded in collecting enough signatures -- about 7,000 -- to place the referendum on the ballot. A challenge to the measure was rejected in December by Howard County Circuit Court.

That ruling was appealed to the Court of Special Appeals.

Moreseberger LLC, which is controlled by developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr., and several others, including property owners whose rezonings have been stalled by the referendum, have led the fight against the legality of the ballot measure.

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