Howard citizens petition for referendum of comprehensive zoning bill

The petitioners come from Ellicott City, Clarksville, Highland, Fulton and everywhere in between. They're Democrats and Republicans, farmers and suburban homeowners. But they're united by the feeling that a comprehensive zoning bill recently passed by the Howard County Council didn't get enough time for debate in the public square.

Under the banner of a group called Citizens Working to Fix Howard County, they're petitioning for a referendum of what they say are the most ill-considered parts of the bill.

With an Oct. 4 deadline looming, time is short to collect enough signatures to get the referendum on the ballot.

Among the decisions the group considers problematic are increased density in Maple Lawn, plans for development at the Rosa Bonheur pet cemetery in Elkridge and new regulations on farming throughout the county.

Lisa Markovitz, chairwoman of the group, said she thought the county government needed to give citizen concerns more weight.

"There are developers who are just being given the zoning they want and there's not enough attention and actual compromise with citizens and neighbors to truly, appropriately address the ramifications of the changes," she said.

Council member Courtney Watson, who represents District 1, said she encouraged citizens to exercise their democratic rights if they disagreed with any parts of the bill.

"I support the right of the citizens to take this or any legislation to referendum and let the process take its course," Watson said.

In order for petitioners to get a referendum on the ballot, they need to gather about 6,000 signatures in support of their cause. Half of those must be collected by Oct. 6, 60 days after the bill was signed. Because that date falls on a Sunday, the petitioners have decided to turn in their signatures Friday, Oct. 4.

If the petitioners have about 3,000 signatures approved by that date, they will then be granted another 30 days to collect the additional signatures they need.

If the petition for referendum is successful, the bill will not go into effect until after voters have had a chance to consider it during the general election on Nov. 4, 2014.

Comprehensive zoning comes around once every eight to 10 years and is an opportunity for landowners and developers to request zoning changes for any reason. After being researched by the Planning Board and the Department of Planning and Zoning, a final bill uniting all the decisions comes to the County Council for a vote. Council members can add their own amendments to the bill in response to constituent concerns.

It's a big undertaking. This year's bill had more than 490 pages of text amendments and more than 150 map amendments, which refer to rezoning of specific parcels of land, to consider.

Markovitz and others involved in the referendum effort argue that the council and the public did not have enough time to fully consider the bill and its consequences.

The council introduced the comprehensive zoning bill June 3 and took a final vote on the legislation July 25. There were two public hearings on the bill in July.

Markovitz said she thought the consequences of zoning and development needed to be more thoroughly considered.

"It's not that we all are against density increases," Markovitz said. "But they talk about smart growth. We don't think growth in Howard County is smart, because it's not paced with infrastructure improvements."

Some of the petition's other supporters said they didn't get a chance to be involved in the comprehensive zoning process, even though they came out to testify.

Shun Lu, a Clarksville resident who has worked to oppose the construction of a mortuary near her community, said her and her neighbors' concerns were largely ignored.

The community has advocated for updating zoning regulations to require new mortuaries be constructed on plots of land that are 6 acres or greater and that have public water and sewer service. The proposed Clarksville funeral home is on a 3-acre lot near an environmentally sensitive stream and has well and septic service.

While DPZ initially supported some of the neighbors' proposals, a later draft of the comprehensive zoning bill struck all new regulations on mortuaries.

"We want the government to protect the community, the environment – not the developers," Lu said.

She said the council needed more time to fully understand the issues: "I think this is a very complicated case, and the County Council members have the formidable task of rezoning. There are so many cases within such a short period of time — it's very hard for them to have a thorough understanding of the case. They work very hard but they really need to have more time."

Markovitz said that because she was coordinating with so many communities throughout the county, it was hard to tell how many signatures the petition had gathered so far.

But, she said, she's been heartened by the response. "Just literally 99 percent of the people who are asked to sign, sign," she said. "Even people who don't have a specific issue — there's enough things that just affect the county as a whole that people have agreed are problematic."



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