Group plans effort to put Columbia rezoning bill on ballot

February 16, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

A small Howard County group calling themselves "Taxpayers Against Giveaways" is forming to try to put a key rezoning bill allowing the redevelopment of central Columbia on the November election ballot.

The group represents critics to the 30-year plan that would allow up to 5,500 new housing units, 4.3 million square feet of office space, and 1.25 million square feet of retail, hotels, public plazas, walkways and other amenities intended to rejuvenate the 43-year-old planned town's center.

The Howard County Council unanimously approved a General Plan Amendment and a separate Zoning Regulation Amendment bill Feb. 1 after months of public hearings, meetings and discussions. County Executive Ken Ulman signed the legislation two days later. Under the law, a referendum petition must submit to the election board at least half the valid 5,000 signatures required within 60 days. If they meet that deadline, the group would get 30 more days to reach the full number of signatures.

The TAG group isn't ready to begin gathering the required names yet, said Russell Swatek, a Columbia resident and spokesman for the group, but it hopes to begin recruiting volunteers and getting signatures within days. He said the group plans to petition only portions of the zoning bill to referendum, to simplify the effort.

"We are taking this extraordinary action as Howard County citizens because the County Council and the executive abdicated their public responsibilities. The council/executive allowed General Growth Properties to write a private zoning bill bestowing on GGP hundreds of millions of dollars of untaxed zoning benefits without the corresponding requirement to provide the necessary infrastructure," Swatek said in a prepared announcement.

Swatek also represents Long Reach village on the Columbia Association's board of directors.

The charges are not new, and over months of debate, council members have said that the dozens of amendments they attached to the bill safeguard the public, while providing a way for Columbia's stagnant central core to grow into a vibrant urban downtown. A range of citizen groups also supported the GGP plan.

County Council chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she would want to see exact petition language.

"The council carefully phased the plan to protect the county and ensure the developer meets its obligations to the county citizens," she said. "The revenue to the county coffers is expected to be a net positive in addition to the millions of dollars of amenities the council required the developer to provide."

Council members and county planners have argued that under the approved plan, Columbia would benefit from a range of amenities, from renovation and expansion of Merriweather Post Pavilion to expanded transit services that developers don't normally provide. The project is tied to performance-based phases that would halt construction if traffic or other infrastructure becomes overburdened, members said.

Swatek's group wants the actual zoning bill killed and the issue returned to the county planning board for months of more scrutiny. Officials of General Growth Properties, the Chicago-based firm that took over the Rouse company in 2004 and proposed the redevelopment, minimized the petition drive's importance.

"Under normal circumstances, this would be alarming," said Gregory F. Hamm, General Growth's vice president and general manager for Columbia. "But in this case the community support for this smart growth program is unlike any I've seen before and will ever see again."

He referred to the critics behind the effort as "people at the margins."

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