Zoning spurs ethics request

Critic of Turf Valley plan questions developer's donation to official

November 02, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

A state delegate receiving a campaign contribution from a developer is as common as electronic voting machines these days. But what if that delegate works in another county's planning department, where a project by that donor's firm is under consideration?

That is the question that was been raised about a proposal for a larger supermarket at the Turf Valley development, just before the County Council's scheduled vote on the issue tomorrow night.

Marc Norman, a critic of the Mangione family's plans to redevelop an 809-acre hotel/golf resort into a large mixed-use residential community, is asking for an ethics investigation into contributions made by Greenberg Gibbons, the firm developing the Turf Valley town center, to Del. Stephen Lafferty's campaign.

Lafferty lives in Towson and was elected in 2006 to represent that area. But in 2003, he was hired as deputy director of planning for Howard County. In August, his title changed to special projects director.

Norman's complaint is that the $750 in contributions since 2006 from Greenberg Gibbons Vice Chairman Herb Mittenthal and his wife, Miriam, were not disclosed on a form attached to the Zoning Regulation Amendment application to Howard County.

"I'm not alleging that anyone did anything wrong," Norman said, but he added that he believes the situation raises questions. "There is tremendous mistrust of the zoning process in this county. We don't have full information."

Norman and others have argued that ZRAs are a way for developers to circumvent the more rigorous zoning-change process.

Mittenthal said he has known Lafferty for years in Towson and did not know he worked for Howard County. Brian Gibbons, president and chief executive officer of Greenberg Gibbons Commercial, said he did not know that Mittenthal had made contributions to anyone involved with Howard County.

"It's a total red herring," Gibbons said. "This is outrageous."

Lafferty said he has had no involvement in the Turf Valley project, except to help Norman find records on the case. He has known the Mittenthals since 1994, he said.

"It never crossed my mind it would cause a problem," he said. "I didn't see any conflict of interest."

Despite that, Lafferty said he will ask the Howard County Ethics Commission to look at the issue.

Paul Johnson, deputy county solicitor, said he concluded that disclosure is not required for ZRA applications under state law and the disclosure form should not be attached. The grocery store matter is not a zoning change, he noted. Greenberg Gibbons wants permission to have a 55,000-square-foot supermarket instead of an 18,000-square-foot space, but the total size of the retail space would not change in the 400,000-square-foot town center.

But Norman said residents should not have to research the executive of companies and then cross reference the names with campaign finance reports to see where donations are coming from.

County Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson said the issue will not figure in whether the council votes on the issue or delays acting for a month. But she said that she does think the county may need a policy to cover such situations.

"I do not believe there was any intent to improperly influence Steve Lafferty," she said.

Although council members often accept campaign contributions from developers, elected officials are accountable to the public. Appointed officials are not, Watson noted.

"There definitely is a perception problem," she said.

Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, Fulton Republican Greg Fox and east Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball have all received campaign contributions from members of the Mangione family.

County Executive Ken Ulman said Lafferty, like every elected official, "is subject to campaign finance disclosure rules."

"I think transparency is important and disclosure is important, but people can find an area to criticize on almost anything," Ulman said. "I've been a little disappointed to see the criticism of Steve."

The council discussed the Turf Valley issue at a work session last week, but members were not sure whether the vote would be delayed.

"We really aren't sure where we will go from here," Watson said after the meeting. "We will decide by Monday."

Gibbons said the small project has personal appeal for him because he lives in the county.

"I'd like to do something special in Howard County," Gibbons said at the meeting. "The demographics are spectacular, and they're only going to get better."

He said he hopes to open the Turf Valley center by 2011.

Some residents favor the change.

"Our homeowners really want this town square," said Helen Carey, a resident of Legends, a 56-unit townhouse community at Turf Valley. She said 54 of the 56 owners signed a petition last summer in favor of the larger store.

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