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.
Markovitz said for the petitioners, the referendum effort is a chance to be heard.
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.
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."
Among those decisions are Shipley's Grant in Ellicott City, where neighbors were concerned about the preservation of an historic property. According to an email from property owner Glenn Curtis, the Maryland Historical Trust recently accepted a request for an historic preservation easement on all of the property's buildings.
In Maple Lawn, members of a group called Voters For Common Sense Growth, who protested the lot's initial R-A-15 proposed zoning, said they did not support the petition movement.
In an email to the council, VCSG Administrator Chrisine Pereira wrote: "We at Voters for Common-Sense Growth would like you to understand that we are not affiliated with the FixHoCo group and do not support the … referendum. We feel that lending our support to FixHoCo in this process would undermine the relationships that we built with all of you during the comp zoning process."
And in Elkridge, members of the Rosa Bonheur Society recently met with the lot's developer, who purportedly offered to preserve the pet and human cemetery without moving any remains.
But Rosa Bonheur Society President Candy Warden said the meeting was just a start. "The meeting… was mainly a meet and greet event for expressing concerns regarding the future of the cemetery," she wrote in an email. "For the time being events are unfolding, so we will all have to wait and see what develops and what the outcome of the referendum petition will be."
Markovitz said she thought developers were finally coming forward because of the pressure and public attention the petition had created.
"If there's an agreement between the developer and the community that is enforceable and in writing, then I would make an opinion about that, and whether or not it benefits the community," she said.
District 5 Council member Greg Fox, a Republican, questioned whether the benefits of having zoning decisions overturned were worth the risks. "What [the petitioners are] doing is what would be nice their eyes, in the community members' eyes, and even mine -- but you have to ask yourself, are you willing to take the risk... that things end up being more than the compromise?" he asked. "And that goes for every one of the properties."
If petitioners don't collect enough signatures by the deadline, of course, questions about the referendum process and the fate of development decisions will be moot.
Markovitz said she had a feeling the group would reach its goal.
"I'll be surprised if we don't get, but it's hard for me to say," she said.
Even if the referendum doesn't get off the ground, she said, "I'm happy that at least council members realize how many thousands of people are out there who have felt unheard."