Council expected to table eminent domain and ethics legislation

County Council members indicated at their work session Monday, Sept. 26, that they will table council member Greg Fox's eminent domain legislation so the Howard County Charter Review Commission could consider the issue.

The Fulton Republican had proposed amending the county charter to regulate the county's ability to use its power of eminent domain for economic development purposes.

Fox said he introduced the resolution to highlight what's going in Clarksville with the redevelopment of the former Gateway School site. The county terminated an agreement with a developer that was slated to buy the 7.8-acre parcel because of issues over access the site.

Fox and many Clarksville area residents believe the county is considering using its power of eminent domain to take land from private business owners to build an access road. But other council members pointed out that Fox's proposal would not preclude the county from condemning land for a public road.

"All I'm trying to do is strengthen the hand of the business owner," Fox said, explaining that at the least his proposed regulations on eminent domain would allow the opposition to have a stronger argument in court.

Because Fox's resolution involves amending the county charter, it would have to be reaffirmed by voters in the next election. Given the timing, Fox agreed to table the resolution so the Charter Review Commission could weigh in on the issue.

"I'm not going to say that if they don't move it forward that I wouldn't move it forward again anyway," Fox said.

The commission is charged with identifying sections of the charter that need to be revised and recommending revisions to the council by May 1, 2012. Unlike bills, which can only sit on the table for 90 days before dying, resolutions can remain on the table indefinitely.

The council also indicated at the work session that it would table a bill that would change the county's ethics law to comply with conflict of interest and financial disclosure requirements in the state's ethics law.

Local jurisdictions throughout the Maryland have to change their ethics laws because the State Ethics Commission wants "requirements for local elected officials that are at least as stringent as requirements for state public officials," according to the council bill, which was filed by the administration.

The bill includes some requirements that are more stringent than the state's law and the existing county law, including additional disclosure requirements for members of boards and commissions. Council members worry that the additional requirements could discourage residents from volunteering for boards and commissions and want more time to consider the impact.

Official moves to table both proposals will be made at the council's legislative session Monday, Oct. 3.

Clarksville traffic study discussed

Also at the work session, the council also discussed a funding proposal, requested by the administration, for a traffic study of the Clarksville area that would look to address the Gateway site access issue.

"This project will be used to evaluate connecting Great Star Drive to Auto Drive to improve turning movements on Maryland 108 and traffic operations in the Clarksville area," the proposal reads.

Council members questioned whether that language created too narrow of a focus for the study.

"I don't think the intent was to study the whole Route 108 corridor," Department of Public Works director Jim Irvin responded. "The intent is to look at the intersection, but it may require moving away from that to make it work properly and safely."

Given the narrow focus, Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat asked: "If the county had sold the Gateway site to a developer and washed their hands of this, would the county be coming in asking for this money in the middle of a budget cycle, asking for a road study?"

"I guess we would not be here if that had happened," Irvin responded.

Fox said that is what concerns him about this project. The county would spend almost as much money, if not more, he said, to provide access to the site than it would get to sell the Gateway property.

"That to me right there tells me there's something wrong here," Fox said.

Council member Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, said she was at the Planning Board hearing on the project and the predominant belief from residents and board members was that a larger study of the Route 108 corridor was needed because of the dangerous left turns made in and out of the strip centers along that road. She asked if the $600,000 proposed for the traffic study was enough to do that.

"As long as (the study) is above the whole (Route) 32 area, I believe we have enough money to do that," Irvin said.

The council is scheduled to vote on the funding request at its Oct. 3 legislative session.

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