Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold says he's considering using his seldom-used veto power to prevent controversial zoning changes in some of the county's most rural areas likely to be approved by the County Council on Monday night.
The threat of veto follows the passage of several amendments to the proposed rezoning bill for southern Anne Arundel and the Annapolis area, parts of which county planning officials have publicly criticized for veering too sharply from accepted zoning principles.
"I'm giving serious consideration to vetoing some portions of the bill," said Leopold, a Republican, who declined to discuss specifics. "I consider some of these amendments to be examples of irresponsible, egregious spot zoning that run counter to the careful process that preceded it."
The battle over zoning in District 7, known as South County, has raged for months, with land-use activists, local residents, developers and land owners weighing in on proposed changes. The process began earlier this year as part of the county's once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning, which tasks the council with considering applications for rezoning land across the county.
Each council member has broad latitude in determining which zoning changes will be granted approval in his district. Councilman Jerry Walker, a Republican from Edgewater who represents South County, introduced many of the contentious amendments. He did not return a call seeking comment, but has said that he is balancing the concerns of county officials and residents opposed to more zoning with the rights of property owners, which he said he believes in strongly.
In a recent email to constituents, he said: "I am sure we will not agree on everything that I submit for amendment, but please understand that I have spent countless hours studying these recommendations and I am trying to reach the best decision I can, given the information available."
Applications for zoning changes in South County include a Fiat car dealership in Edgewater, intensified development in Lothian and commercial development south of Route 214, which county planners say fly in the face of agreed-upon guiding principles for county development. All three of the projects have received intense criticism from local residents, who have complained that the projects are out of character for their proposed locations.
Despite the impending political battle over the zoning if Leopold were to issue a veto, George Criswell, who owns Acura and Audi car dealerships in Annapolis and wants zoning to open a Fiat dealership, says he's formalizing his agreement with Fiat by entering into a "letter of intent" with the company.
"This is a great honor for my organization and Anne Arundel County to be selected as the site of a new Fiat dealership," said Criswell, who has said that Fiat plans to open hundreds of dealerships in the coming years in the American market. Criswell added that he plans to spend $2 million to build the facility at the site of a former police station in Edgewater. The dealership is expected to create about 25 jobs.
Larry R. Tom, director of the county's office of Planning and Zoning, has opposed several of the approved changes, saying they don't mesh with the county's General Development Plan and the Small Area Plan for those communities.
Councilman Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat from Annapolis, said he opposed many of the controversial amendments, and planned to support any veto. If Leopold were to veto any amendments, the council would need five votes for an override.
"I've tried really hard to be the voice of responsible growth on the county," said Trumbauer, whose district has not faced as much scrutiny over proposed zoning changes. "I understand there's some compelling reasons why people want zoning, but I've tried to make my baseline that I should follow the general development plan."
In June, 135 people testified before the council about the more than 100 applications for changes in those areas.
Leopold, meanwhile, said he expected residents and others to continue to protest the changes in the event that a potential veto were to be overturned.
"It's important to listen carefully to the views of the professional planners," said Leopold. "The phrase 'Keeping South County rural' is far more than a slogan, it represents a deeply held policy view; it represents the quality of life that people in South County have come to expect."