Turf Valley shifts focus

Development fight stalls over signatures question

March 22, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

Both sides in the heated debate over the size of a grocery store in Turf Valley can agree on one thing these days: The battle looks to be on hold until another, more far-reaching question gets answered.

And coming to a resolution on that issue - what constitutes a legal signature on a referendum petition in Howard County - is generating a discussion among public officials that has expanded to include consideration of voter rights.

"The biggest problem associated with all of this is that it is not just a Howard County issue, it is a statewide issue," said Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who presided over a meeting with members of the county's State House delegation Wednesday. "We just happen to be the ones who it fell in our hands because of the current referendum."

The discussion centers on the recent decision by the county election board to invalidate many of the signatures that were collected in hopes of putting the Turf Valley matter on referendum.

"What the decision by the Howard County Board of Elections did was take the Turf Valley issue and put it completely on the back burner," said Marc Norman, a Turf Valley resident who is the primary opponent of the plan to expand the planned grocery store. "The issue at hand is, do citizens have fundamental voting rights in the state?"

Sang Oh, an attorney representing the project's developers, said the grocery store issue should not get lost in the broader discussion. And he says that Norman and his supporters erred in their signature-gathering effort and "are asking the delegation to save them from themselves; that's what is really going on."

Norman began the petition effort after the County Council's November approval of new zoning regulations that allow the developers of the 30-year-old golf community in Ellicott City to triple the maximum allowable size of a planned grocery store, to 55,000 square feet. The developers have said the original size limit, which was approved in 1993, no longer allows for a viable grocery store.

Norman has criticized the project as an example of piecemeal approval made without considering the broader infrastructure needs or the potential negative consequences for shopping centers in the area.

A Turf Valley resident for eight years, Norman met the 60-day deadline for collecting at least half of the 5,000 signatures required. About 22 percent of the signatures were rejected by the election board, but Norman still had just more than 2,600 that were validated. He continued to gather signatures and turned in more than 9,300.

That's when the first obstacle surfaced. On Feb. 12, the elections board stopped counting in the aftermath of lawsuits filed by Oh and Richard Talkin, attorneys for Turf Valley project developer Greenberg Gibbons.

The suits - whose defendants include the state and county election boards, as well as Norman - contend that many of the signatures and printed names that accompany them were not rendered properly according to state rules. They also contend that 23 of the 26 people who collected signatures were paid, despite having checked a box on the petition saying they were not.

Oh said it is clear that most of the signatures were ultimately rejected - 86 percent according to Norman - because they did not adhere to guidelines set by the state election board.

The county board referred to a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in December on a Montgomery County case that required stricter adherence to the state rules.

"What [the Montgomery County] case said was that you have to enforce the law, the law means what it says," said Oh.

According to state law, names have to be signed and printed the same way as they appear on the person's voter registration, or with the person's first name, middle name or initial, and last name to be valid.

At last week's meeting, state election officials said that previously, there only had to be "reasonable certainty" that the person is who they claim, and that information matches up with what is in the voting records.

State election officials said a meeting is expected to be scheduled this week with Howard officials in an effort to clarify the rules.

"The approval will be based on the [Montgomery County case] decision," Sandra Brantley, a state election board attorney, told the group gathered at the Wednesday meeting. "We don't historically make a recommendation to change the decisions of the court. We would take the decision of the court and incorporate it into the material unless you all decide to change the law."

Norman said his signature was rejected because he failed to put in his middle initial when he signed his name across from where he printed it.

Paul Kendall, a Washington attorney and Turf Valley resident who said he believes his signature was among those rejected, filed suit in federal court last week claiming that the decision by the state election board to reverse its original set of guidelines without any input from county residents was unconstitutional.

"It's basically a rule to ferret out fraud," Kendall said. "Nobody disputes that the [new] rule threw out a majority of legitimate signatures. The issue then becomes in a constitutional sense, 'Is the rule over-broad?' My argument is that it's not narrow enough to deal with the articulated harm, which is fraud."

Kendall said he believes that the ruling by the county election board has little chance of holding up in court under what will be judged as a "strict, scrutiny standard."

Meanwhile, the deadline for collecting signatures on the Turf Valley referendum has passed. Norman said that the issue regarding the rezoning in Turf Valley is a "separate fight" but that the issue regarding the proper signatures continues.

"While it might be our fight today, it will be somebody else's fight tomorrow," he said.

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