Some community leaders in Baltimore County are fighting a referendum drive they say is backed by developers who are trying to "hijack" the county's zoning process because they didn't get their way.
A coalition calling itself "Don't Sign It!" urged county residents Monday not to sign the petitions, which would put land-use decisions in Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond's and Councilwoman Cathy Bevins' districts on the 2014 ballot.
The petition drive has ties to Howard Brown of David S. Brown Enterprises and to the Cordish Cos., two prominent development firms.
At a news conference outside the courthouse in Towson, community activist Noel Levy said signature gatherers are misleading voters about what the referendum would do. He called Brown and Cordish "a couple of very wealthy, well-heeled developers circumventing" the county's zoning process.
"They are individuals who are used to getting their way," Levy said.
A spokesman for Brown declined to comment Monday. The Cordish Cos. have not responded to repeated requests for comment about the referendum campaign.
Brown, who is building the Metro Centre at Owings Mills, opposed the rezoning of the former Solo Cup site in Almond's district, where developer Greenberg Gibbons plans to build a retail center called Foundry Row.
Cordish opposed allowing retail at the vacant Middle River Depot site in Bevins' district. Cordish owns the nearby Carroll Island Shopping Center. A Cordish representative visited a meeting of the Essex-Middle River Civic Council last month to promote a referendum, according to people who were at meeting.
Community leaders said Monday that a successful ballot initiative would have far-reaching consequences. It could put all the council's land-use decisions made in Almond's and Bevins' districts this year on hold, they said, including zoning changes that protected land for environmental reasons or that would help businesses expand.
While the referendum would challenge zoning decisions only in those two districts, anyone registered to vote in the county can sign the petition.
The referendum supporters must collect more than 28,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot. A third are due by Oct. 15. If they reach that deadline, they would have 30 more days to collect the rest.
The Committee for Zoning Integrity is behind the referendum drive. Brown's general counsel is listed in the copyright information for the committee's website, fixthemaps.com. The website contends that signing the petitions would lead to "less prioritization for the concerns of special interests and developers."
The committee has hired National Ballot Access, a company that manages petition drives.
Groups that oppose the referendum include: the Greater Greenspring Association, the Greater Midfield Association, the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council, the Falls Road Community Association and the Valleys Planning Council.
Community members also called on County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to weigh in.
"We are looking to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for leadership," said Cheryl Aaron of the Greater Greenspring Association.
Almond also has questioned why Kamenetz has not spoken out about the issue, saying the referendum drive could have implications for the county's planning process.
"This is not just about Cathy and I," Almond said in an interview last week. "This is about Baltimore County and economic development going forward. If people want to do business in Baltimore County going forward, are they going have to ask David Cordish and Howard Brown if it's OK?"
Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff, said it would be "premature" for Kamenetz to weigh in because the issue is not on the ballot yet.
"He signed the bills once they were passed, indicating that he thought the council did their due diligence," Mohler said.
Otis Rolley, a spokesman for the Committee for Zoning Transparency — which he said is connected to the Committee for Zoning Integrity, but focused only on Almond's district — said a referendum would give the community a voice.
"You can't say that you speak for the community ... and then oppose the referendum," said Rolley, a former Baltimore mayoral candidate.
Rolley said the committee's backers include businesses at the Garrison Forrest Shopping Center.
Brian Gibbons, the developer of Foundry Row, has hired the firm Petition Partners to distribute fliers urging people to "think twice" before signing the petition, as well as newspaper articles on the referendum drive.
Gibbons said signature gatherers have lied by telling people that signing the petition would let citizens elect members of the county school board, which is now appointed, among other claims.
In a statement Monday, National Ballot Access accused the workers hired by Gibbons' firm of threatening and intimidating signature gatherers.
Gibbons called that "nonsense."
"Our goal is to let people know what's really going on," Gibbons said. "We have a right to hand out the information."
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