Group plans effort to put Columbia rezoning bill on ballot

'Taxpayers Against Giveaways' referendum petition to target housing portion of plan

February 17, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

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

The group represents critics of 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 space, 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 it meets that deadline, the group would get 30 more days to reach the full number of signatures.

The group is not 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 that deal with the 5,500 residences.

"We are taking this extraordinary action as Howard County citizens because the County Council and the executive abdicated their public responsibilities," Swatek said in a prepared announcement. "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."

The accusations are not new, and over months of debate, council members have said 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 citizens groups also supported the GGP plan.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat, said GGP got no special favors.

Council members and county planners have argued that, under the approved plan, Columbia would benefit from a range of amenities, including renovation and expansion of Merriweather Post Pavilion and expanded transit services that developers do not 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 zoning bill killed and the issue returned to the county planning board for more scrutiny. Officials of General Growth Properties, the Chicago-based firm that took over the Rouse Co. in 2004 and proposed the redevelopment, minimized the petition drive's importance.

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