Balto. Co. elections board rejects referendum bid on zoning decisions

Baltimore County elections officials on Tuesday rejected a referendum challenge to a planned Wegmans in Owings Mills and a mixed-use development in Middle River, saying petitions used in the ballot drive did not give voters enough information.

Board of Elections director Katie Brown ruled that the developer-funded petitions, which sought to place the County Council's zoning decisions on the 2014 ballot, didn't meet legal standards.

The referendum drive involved a number of properties, including Green Spring Station in Lutherville, where the owners hoped a voter challenge could overturn a zoning decision that limited their ability to expand and renovate.

The petition sponsors gathered enough signatures – more than 170,000 — to put the issue on the ballot. But they should have included maps of the zoning issues with the petitions they asked people to sign, according to a written opinion from elections board attorney Andrew Bailey.

Bailey wrote that the form presented to potential signers "was insufficient to alert them to what exactly they were being asked to petition to a vote."

The drive was mainly a battle between prominent developers in the county, although some residents picked sides and participated in the campaigns. Petition supporters pledged Tuesday to appeal the board's decision to the Circuit Court.

"The right to referendum is granted by the Maryland Constitution and the county charter as a means of protecting public participation in government," said Stuart Kaplow, who represents a coalition of developers who led the drive. "I'm confident the courts will order the petitions be placed on ballot."

The referendum would have let voters challenge dozens of the council's 2012 zoning decisions in two County Council districts — the 2nd District, represented by Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, and the 6th District, represented by Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat. The council voted on the zoning maps in August 2012.

The potential for a referendum caused uncertainty for projects such as the redevelopment of the Solo Cup plant on Reisterstown Road in Almond's district, where developer Greenberg Gibbons wants to build a Wegmans-anchored shopping center called Foundry Row. It also threatened Middle River Depot, where another developer hopes to turn the vacant industrial site a center of stores, offices and homes.

Contributors to the referendum campaign include companies with ties to David S. Brown Enterprises and the Cordish Cos., and owners of the Garrison Forest Plaza shopping center. They have projects that would compete with other developments whose zoning was approved last year.

Some community groups criticized the petition drive, saying that promoters misled voters to protect their own economic interests and that paid signature gatherers lied to residents when asking them to sign petitions at shopping centers and other public places.

Cheryl Aaron of the Greater Greenspring Association called the decision Tuesday "a huge win for the community." She said the current zoning review process, which happens every four years in the county, lets residents weigh in on land-use issues. By funding a referendum, the developers had been "hijacking the process," she said.

Taking zoning issues to the ballot could have set a significant precedent that could bring economic development in her community "to a screeching halt," Aaron said. "If you're a developer in your right mind, would you want to walk into this mess?" she said. "And we want legitimate developers with good projects to want to be here."

In his opinion, elections board attorney Bailey wrote that the zoning legislation passed by the county included maps and that the law makes little sense to a reader if he or she can't see the maps. He noted that the petitions were circulated all over the county, even though they only would affect two districts.

"Many readers likely had little more than a vague notion of where Districts 2 and 6 are located geographically in the County, let alone where the affected properties lie within those districts," he wrote.

Bevins said she was "elated" by the decision, adding that many people didn't know that the drive was funded by developers. "People were duped," she said.

Almond said she was grateful for the board's decision and that she feared that a zoning referendum would make the county an "uncertain place to do business."

She also believed voters were misled into signing the petitions. "I don't think the public was well informed about what was going on," Almond said. "I don't think you can explain this issue in three minutes on the parking lot."

In a statement, an attorney for Foundry Row said the developer is grateful for the board's decision and looking forward to moving ahead.

"We also thank the people of Owings Mills and the community and business groups who strongly support Foundry Row," said Tim Maloney, who also represents the developer of the Middle River Depot. "We look forward to bringing Wegmans, great jobs, and a new gateway to Owings Mills."

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