Balto. Co. urges elections board to reject zoning referendum petitions

Baltimore County's chief attorney is urging the local board of elections to reject petitions gathered last year in a controversial referendum drive that, if successful, could let voters overturn many of the County Council's zoning decisions.

In a letter dated Thursday, County Attorney Mike Field told elections board Director Katie Brown that the petition sponsors did not give all the necessary information to voters when gathering signatures.

Brown's office is weighing whether to approve the petitions, and place the referendum on the 2014 ballot.

The referendum drive has been financed by developers and shopping center owners who are unhappy with zoning decisions the council made last year as part of a county-wide zoning review process. If the issue makes it onto the ballot, county voters could overturn zoning bills in the districts of two council members — Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, and Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat.

Field's letter marks the first time the administration of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has publicly outlined its position on the issue, which involves politically powerful developers and their attorneys. The county attorney also represents the County Council, among other county offices.

In the letter, Field said the petition sponsors did not comply with legal requirements to provide voters with either the "full text" or a "fair and accurate summary" of the question that would be placed on the ballot. The letter contends that petition circulators should have included zoning maps with the petitions when they approached people for their signatures, but did not do so.

"I agree with the [referendum] opponents that the petition has failed to satisfy certain requirements established by law," Field wrote.

The elections board, which has been swamped counting signatures in the case, is expected to announce in early February whether it will certify the issue for the ballot.

"I respect the county attorney, including in his dual role as counsel to the County Council. It's not surprising that the council would want to weigh in," said Stuart Kaplow, a lawyer for the petition supporters. Kaplow said he doesn't agree with Fields' arguments, but "unfortunately, a court will likely ultimately determine that."

Those backing the referendum include companies with ties to David S. Brown Enterprises and the Cordish Cos., as well as the owners of the Garrison Forest Plaza shopping center in Owings Mills and Green Spring Station in Lutherville.

The developers of the Foundry Row project at the former Solo Cup plant in Owings Mills and the Middle River Depot site are fighting the referendum because those projects benefited from the council's zoning decisions.

Late last year, many residents were approached at public places — such as grocery stores and libraries — by paid petition workers who asked for their signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

"Certainly, any sponsor who can afford to hire professional circulators to gather signatures, produce and distribute a slick brochure and sponsor a webpage could afford the copying expense at the local copy shop to comply with the 'full text' requirement under law," Field wrote in his letter to the elections board.

The referendum supporters argue that putting zoning issues on the ballot would give residents more say in land-use issues. Critics say developers are trying to bypass the council approval process for economic gain, not out of concern for communities.

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