Howard citizens lose bill battle

Court blocks placement of zoning challenge on November ballot


A group of Howard County citizens worried about the pace of growth lost a bid yesterday before the state's highest court to place dozens of government-approved zoning changes on the ballot this year.

The citizens were trying to defeat a bill, called Comp Lite, that provided for a series of comprehensive zoning changes for new homes, office parks, businesses and a major church expansion. The Maryland Court of Appeals' refusal to re-examine the Howard case could also have political implications for local candidates.

The decision follows by a day a Court of Appeals ruling that killed another referendum attempt - a Republican-backed effort to place on the ballot the new state law allowing early voting.

In a year when resentment over development-driven congestion is putting pressure on local politicians, the Howard case is frustrating residents opposed to several of the development projects in the bill - further fueling their anger.

"We will inform people [about] who voted which way," said Angela Beltram, a Democrat and former Howard County councilwoman who led the zoning revolt.

"The Democrats created the Comp Lite process," she said.

The resentment could hurt the county executive campaign of Councilman Ken Ulman, a Democrat who voted for the contested bill. Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, the Republican candidate for county executive, was the only council member who voted against the bill.

The court's decision ends attempts to allow residents to vote on the Comp Lite bill this year. The measure makes zoning changes on 38 parcels and includes 49 pages of regulatory changes.

The issue that sparked the petition drive was the inclusion of a zoning change for a major church expansion in Ellicott City - a move that residents felt bypassed normal processes.

Beltram and her supporters say they have received countywide support from people who are tired of heavy traffic, crowded schools and large homes rising on seemingly every vacant lot.

The court clerk's office informed Katherine L. Taylor, attorney for Citizens for An Open Process for Everyone (COPE), that the group will not be allowed to intervene in the case, and also denied a request for review of a Court of Special Appeals decision last month. That ruling reversed a lower court opinion upholding the referendum language and declared that the description of the bill on the petitions signed by 6,027 voters was too limited to enable signers to know what they were signing. A written order is expected tomorrow.

"It's off the ballot," Taylor said.

Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor, said, "It is fairly unusual [that] something can't go on the ballot [because of] the wording people used." Typically, referendum drives fail for lack of valid signatures, he said.

Beltram said her group used an official summary of the bill chosen by the county election board. Group members said the court action takes away their rights as voters to challenge decisions by elected leaders.

"We used to have a responsible government. I don't think we have it now," she said.

Taylor said the laws on referendums must be clarified.

"In both cases, referenda petitions were attempted and knocked out. It's horribly disappointing in general," she said. "Citizens went to extraordinary efforts in an attempt to exercise their rights," but "lawyers and the courts that looked at the regulations acknowledged the rules and regulations for the filing of petitions are ambiguous and conflicting."

Harry Siegel, the Columbia attorney who represented the successful landowners and developers, disagreed. Beltram's mistake, he said, was not hiring a lawyer to craft proper petition language.

"There's a very clear statute and very clear case law. It's easy," he said, adding that the county Office of Planning and Zoning had a succinct summary of every issue in the bill that could have been used. "It got mucked up pretty bad, and it was an easy thing to do. What these people tried to use was insufficient.

"My people are just happy this chapter is closed."

Beltram said she is considering filing a new suit in Circuit Court challenging the process that led to the bill. Beltram contends that the County Council perverted the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process by extending it from one to two years.

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