As the sun set over Ellicott City on a crisp autumn evening earlier this week, the volunteers stood outside Miller Library, clutching clipboards and calling out to passersby: "Would you like to help take zoning to the voters?"
People stopped to listen to what they had to say, nodding as the petitioners explained more than a dozen items from the county's recently passed comprehensive zoning bill that they believe should go before the public for a vote.
They're the Citizens Working to Fix Howard County, and they are determined to take the county government to task for passing what they say is a bill that made too many profound decisions in too little time.
"We just thought we the people ought to make the decisions," said Jane Gray, the group's treasurer.
Should the petition get the necessary minimum of 5,390 valid signatures, it would mean uncharted territory and interesting implications for the county — regardless of whether or not the referendum makes it to the general election ballot.
For now, the group is focused on one thing: getting enough signatures to make the referendum a possibility. They already have submitted at least half, but they don't have much time left to gather the rest.
There is some debate about when the final round of signatures is due — the group argues guidelines laid out in the county charter allow them to turn in signatures until Monday, Nov. 4. But if all goes well, organizers said they will have all they need by Friday, Nov. 1, the date the Howard County Board of Elections says is the deadline.
Although no one will know for sure whether the petition has enough signatures until about three weeks after they're turned in, citizens, county officials and developers alike are already starting to take notice.
"It puts [the rezoned properties included in the petition] in limbo," said Director of Planning and Zoning Marsha McLaughlin. "I'm sure the property owners themselves are quite concerned. They can't really move forward unless some determination is made."
Roster of issues
Taped to the table the petitioners set up near the library entrance Monday evening were maps of lots in Clarksville, Maple Lawn, Savage and elsewhere — all locations of zoning changes that petitioners say bring too much density to the surrounding community.
The petition lists 14 map amendments that include properties the group says are all "rezonings to much higher intensity use." These include the Maple Lawn South development in Fulton, Shipley's Grant in Ellicott City, the Highland Business area on Clarksville Pike, Guilford Road in Clarksville and the Rosa Bonheur pet and human cemetery along Route 1 in Elkridge.
Another two map amendments reference a lot near the Savage Mill whose zoning was changed from business to a new environmental-residential zone to allow for a townhouse development.
Petitioners also took issue with two text amendments to the zoning bill. One is a change to the definition of farming that allows for the application of "soil amendments," which the group says would open the door to using "treated human waste" on county farms.
The other requires that farming structures on residentially zoned properties be "subordinate and incidental" to the principal use of the property.
And, a final two items on the petition are carry-overs from piecemeal zoning changes made prior to the comprehensive zoning bill: the Normandy Shopping Center in Ellicott City and a lot in Clarksville that is the site of a proposed mortuary.
Group chair Lisa Markovitz said there wasn't a targeted selection process for the issues that made the cut.
"It's not like we pored through the bill and decided what we didn't like about it, because it's huge," she said. "Things came to our attention through our various civic organizations. … Probably others would have been added if we had had more time.
"There are just a lot of groups out there who feel that they found things out later, or that they didn't quite realize the consequences of things until later," she added.
"It's better to take the zoning to the people rather than to the council," said Stephanie Marcello, an Ellicott City resident who stopped by the library to sign the petition. She said she was concerned that increasing development would clog roads and overcrowd schools. "The schools can only take so much," she said.