Signatures are submitted for referendum on Columbia plan

April 03, 2010|By Larry Carson |

A petition drive to reverse a portion of the 30-year redevelopment plan for downtown Columbia by referendum appears to be gaining momentum.

Late Friday, organizers of the drive turned in 40 percent more signatures than required for the first deadline they faced, and they vowed to continue working. The group, Taxpayers Against Giveaways, turned in 3,510 signatures, spokesman Russell Swatek said, far more than the 2,500 required. They now have until April 30 to pass the 5,000 mark, which is Howard County's threshold for petitioning a County Council zoning vote to referendum.

"If you'd asked me 10 days ago, I was worried about making 2,500," Swatek said as he turned in a shopping bag full of petition sheets at the county elections board in Ellicott City. A court review of the petition language has also been requested by Howard Research and Development, an arm of Columbia's master developer, General Growth Properties.

Swatek said good weather and a realization by more people that the signature drive was not going well encouraged more residents to volunteer to help.

The group seeks to defeat the 5,500 maximum new housing units proposed for the town center makeover unanimously approved by the County Council on Feb. 1. The critics fear the plan would overwhelm Columbia's infrastructure and burden county taxpayers with big bills for new roads and interchanges. Supporters of the zoning say Columbia is stagnating and needs more people and vibrancy in the town's core to thrive.

The plan calls for about 6 million square feet of new commercial and retail buildings in addition to the homes, plus cultural buildings, renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion, public plazas and a new urban style downtown. General Growth Properties' officials have said the plan might not be economically possible without the authority to build up to 5,500 residences.

Greg Hamm, GGP's vice president and Columbia's general manager, said a referendum "can be part of the process. If the voters are given accurate facts and information, we're pretty confident they would choose comprehensive planning," he said.

County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat who represents town center and who shepherded the plan through the council, said it would be "unfortunate" if the issue gets on the November ballot.

"The reality is it is a right afforded to the people of the county," she said, but "it's not in the county's best interest for it to be taken to referendum." She defended the council's action. "I think the council did a really good job," she said, spending weeks crafting safeguards to protect the county and residents from excess costs or congestion.

Michael W. Davis, a lawyer who supports the plan as part of a group called the New City Alliance, said he doesn't think a referendum is required, but "if they get the signatures, then we have a debate, and that's fine." The issue has been debated for more than five years, he said, and "other things keep slowing down the process."

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