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Don't let developers hijack county zoning process

Stop! Don't sign it!

A petition drive secretly sponsored by developers Howard Brown and David Cordish has been circulating for the last few weeks in an effort to quash all of the zoning changes in Council Districts 2 and 6 that were approved in August by the Baltimore County Council. This vote took place after an exhaustive one-year process of community input meetings, Planning Board recommendations and staff reviews called the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process (CZMP). Finally, it was signed into law by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

But Mr. Brown and Mr. Cordish were unhappy with two decisions that didn't swing their way: Foundry Row, an upscale retail and office center featuring a Wegmans supermarket in District 2; and Middle River Depot, a new retail, office and residential project anchored by a Walmart Superstore in District 6. Mr. Brown owns the competing Metro Centre project a few blocks away from Foundry Row; in District 6, Mr. Cordish owns an older Walmart in the nearby Carroll Island Shopping Center.

If their signature-collecting campaign were successful, it would force those two issues, along with approximately 80 other approved zoning changes, onto the November 2014 ballot for a referendum vote. This would put all the recently adopted changes in both districts on hold for two years, with devastating and unforeseen economic fallout.

But theirs is a stealth campaign. Nowhere on any of the petitions do the names Howard Brown or David Cordish appear, even though Mr. Brown's lawyers set up the organization running the petition drive, ironically named the Committee for Zoning Integrity. Nowhere in the language of the petition is there a reference to Foundry Row or Middle River Depot. The petition website actually has the audacity to claim that "public interests should set the vision for zoning decisions, not developers."

It is so confusing on purpose. Specially trained signature gatherers who travel all over the country as hired guns have been brought in by a Pennsylvania company to circulate these petitions. They use coercion and deception to persuade unsuspecting people to sign an intentionally confusing document. Reports of misleading descriptions of the petition are becoming commonplace — that it is for an elected school board, that it will improve labor conditions, that it is to give the people a voice in zoning decisions. (My sister-in-law almost wept when she found out what it was she had really signed for the nice lady set up at the table outside the Senior Expo; she thought I would be so proud of her, that she had participated in the democratic process. And I am. I am just sad that it is being subverted in such an ugly manner.)

Mr. Brown and Mr. Cordish have a history of developing properties together. In 2001, they partnered on the successful Sam's Club/Walmart project on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills. That collaboration went so well that in 2011 they actually submitted a lowball offer on the same Foundry Row property whose zoning they now so vehemently oppose.

But as they say in Survivor, the name of the game is "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast." Mr. Brown and Mr. Cordish got outplayed by other developers who bought the two properties they coveted. Now they want to take everyone else out of the game along with them.

If they have their way, businesses seeking to expand will not be able to move forward for at least two years, killing jobs so sorely needed in this weak economy. Communities seeking to enhance their quality of life will be forced to take a back seat to other county districts, whose zoning changes are not frozen in limbo. Citizens who work in good faith to participate in their communities will find their efforts negated by powerful developers who know they can petition the map to referendum whenever they want to bypass the process.

Whether Mr. Brown and Mr. Cordish succeed in obtaining the first 9,513 valid signatures required to meet the Board of Elections threshold, there is no doubt they will persist in their effort. They need to collect 28,826 signatures by the Nov. 14 deadline in order to place the Comprehensive Zoning Maps for Districts 2 and 6 on the ballot in November 2014. Even then, it is likely the authenticity of the petition will be challenged every step of the way.

Although only two districts would be affected by the referendum, they can mine all of Baltimore County for signatures. That is why it is so important to share this convoluted story of intrigue and deception. Thousands of potential "marks" across the county, with little or no understanding of the issues or interest in the outcome, nevertheless hold the fate of two County Council districts in their hands.

Don't Sign It! is a loose coalition of Baltimore County citizens and neighborhood associations who have joined together to affirm the principle that the zoning process really should represent the people, not the developers. It is urging voters to reject this illegitimate petition drive and secure the improvements they have worked so hard to achieve through the CZMP. Don't allow Baltimore County to be hijacked by influence and power.

Ruth Goldstein (RuthGoldstein@comcast.net) is a community activist in Pikesville, as is Noel Levy (megamapster@verizon.com), who contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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