Markovitz said for the petitioners, the referendum effort is a chance to be heard.

County response

Howard County Council members, on the other hand, see the comprehensive zoning bill as the result of many long hours of research, discussion and compromise. The council spent seven public hearings and 15 work sessions totaling more than 100 hours on the bill, which was approved unanimously July 25.

"I think it's fair to say that we as a council were very thoughtful in what we did, and that we tried very hard to do as we are required to do, which is to set zoning by the goals of the general plan," said District 4 Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty. "We did not do anything frivolously. Some of us did not like some of the things that ultimately happened with those decisions … but in the end, we all recognized the work that had been done."

All of the council members except Council Chair Jen Terrasa, who did not return calls for comment by press time, said they supported the right of Howard County citizens to the democratic process.

"The right to take this to referendum is part of the process," said District 1 Democrat Courtney Watson. "As a council, we'll have to wait and see how this moves forward."

County Executive Ken Ulman echoed those sentiments. "Obviously I supported the bill," he said. "But I also support the people's right to the democratic process."

Long road to the ballot

The process for taking a law to referendum is complex and involves multiple steps with deadlines along the way.

Once the petitioners turn in the signatures, the county Board of Elections has 20 days to verify them, by checking that signees are registered voters, the addresses they listed are valid and that the signature matched their printed name.

If the Board of Elections confirms that the petition has enough valid signatures, it would then have to go through another examination to ensure that it has met all the legal requirements necessary for a petition to be placed on the ballot.

There are likely to be legal challenges, according to people familiar with the process. Land use lawyer Bill Erskine, who represents Maple Lawn and the Normandy Woods Shopping Center, already has filed challenges to the petition on behalf of his clients.

Erskine questioned the ability of the language on the petition to accurately summarize more than a dozen components of a complex bill.

"Irrespective of the number of signatures [petitioners] may ultimately get, the voters were not fairly and accurately informed about the purpose and the effect of the referendum as they are required to be under state and county law," he said. "If you don't have a fair and accurate summary, [the Board of Elections] considers it to be flawed [and] has the authority to deny the request."

Erskine also questioned what would happen with the piecemeal decisions, made outside of comprehensive zoning, should the referendum pass. "What is the zoning going to be if the referendum's successful?" he said. "Would it revert back to residential? It's just crazy. This is the kind of thing that as a land-use lawyer I can get very excited about."

Whatever the Board of Elections' decision, Erskine said, he thought the referendum petition would end up in circuit court, where the decision-making process would be expedited due to the deadlines for placing a referendum on the ballot. According to Maryland law, a referendum ballot question would have to be certified by the third Monday in August of next year to be placed on the general election ballot in November 2014.

If the petition passes legal muster, the Office of Law would draw up the question that would appear on the ballot, according to Howard County spokesman David Nitkin.

Waiting game

In the meantime, development projects affected by zoning decisions called into question by the petition would remain in limbo.

"It's unfortunate that the decisions that were made as a result of many months of work and community conversation about land use moving forward are still unsettled," said District 2 Council member Calvin Ball, a Democrat. "And, unfortunately, it could have a detrimental impact to certain goals that those who may be supporting the referendum have."