Developers have given $225,000 to Balto. Co. referendum drive

Developers and shopping-center owners have contributed more than $225,000 to efforts to challenge zoning decisions in Baltimore County through referendums, financial disclosure forms show.

Contributors to the drive include firms tied to developers Howard Brown and the Cordish Cos., as well as those that run the Garrison Forest Plaza in Owings Mills and Green Spring Station in Lutherville. The backers have paid political firms, lawyers and others in hopes of putting land-use issues in two districts on the 2014 ballot, according to the documents filed Friday with the county elections board.

The campaign launched this fall would put zoning decisions in two councilwomen's districts on the ballot. The councilwomen — Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, and Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat — say the developers are targeting their districts because they are unhappy with zoning decisions that would benefit their competition.

Backers of the referendum filed more than 70,000 signatures with the county elections board Friday — far more than required — but officials have not yet validated those signatures. They filed an additional 16,000 on Monday, they said.

Two groups have been created to push the referendum: the Committee for Zoning Integrity, which is focusing on both districts, and the Committee for Zoning Transparency, which is focusing only on Almond's district.

The two organizations have paid a total of more than $166,000 to National Ballot Access, a petition-drive management firm based in Georgia.

Other expenditures by the Committee for Zoning Integrity include about $5,800 paid to Burnside and Associates, a Los Angeles firm specializing in "grass-roots field operations," and about $8,400 to Direct Connections Campaign Services, another political firm in Los Angeles. It also paid fees to lawyers in Washington and Towson, as well as to Shananigenz Creative, a marketing and design company in Baltimore.

Garrison Forest Associates LP, which owns Garrison Forest Plaza on Reisterstown Road, contributed more than $100,000 to the Committee for Zoning Transparency, according to the disclosure forms.

Three companies have given a total of $125,000 to the Committee for Zoning Integrity since late September.

Owings Mills Transit LLC, affiliated with Brown's company, contributed $50,000. Brown is building the Metro Centre at Owings Mills and fought the rezoning of the former Solo Cup property on Reisterstown Road, where a retail center called Foundry Row is planned by developer Greenberg Gibbons.

Carroll Island Associates, which is associated with the Cordish Cos., also gave $50,000. The Cordish Cos. own the Carroll Island Shopping Center in Middle River and opposed the rezoning of the nearby Middle River Depot, which was given a mixed-use designation that would allow for retail development there.

Foxleigh Management, an owner of Green Spring Station, gave $25,000 to the committee. In a statement, the company said it is supporting the referendum drive because the county's current process "allows neighbors to continually change the zoning of another neighbor's property with the final decision being made by a single elected official."

While the entire council votes on each zoning issue, the members nearly always follow the lead of the member who represents the district where the zoning petition was filed. A decision by Almond this year will hurt Foxleigh's ability to improve Green Spring Station and renovate buildings on the site, including two historic buildings, the company said.

"We were blindsided by the councilwoman's lack of support and have supported this referendum on principle in hopes that our zoning at Green Spring Station will be restored," the company said in a statement.

Almond called the Green Spring Station site "extremely complicated" and said she "considered all sides of this issue in making the decision."

Developers of the Foundry Row and Middle River Depot projects have acknowledged spending money in an effort to keep the zoning decisions off the ballot. However, they have not been required to file financial disclosure forms because they are not seeking a referendum.

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