An effort to force a special election to allow Taneytown residents to decide whether the city should annex the Sewell farm property from Carroll County fell 281 signatures short this week.
On Wednesday, city officials said that only 818 signatures of 1,043 submitted were valid. Petitioners needed to submit 1,099 valid signatures, according to the city, though the volunteers believed the required number to be lower.
Annexation of the 126-acre property, approved by the Taneytown City Council on July 11, is now official.
“I believe that it is in the city’s best interest to have the Sewell property within our corporate limits and available for development when the time is appropriate,” Mayor Bradley Wantz said in emailed remarks Aug. 24. “We would be in a position to control both the time and method of development with it in our boundaries. My platform has been responsible growth for the city, and that includes lining up the opportunities for the future of the city.”
The Sewell property, split across two parcels, will now be added to the city’s jurisdiction. Of the farmland zoned for development, four homes per acre would be allowed following a waiver approval in April by the Board of Carroll County Commissioners.
“The west annexation would consist of 39 acres designated conservation and 77 acres medium-density residential, while the east annexation would be 10 acres of suburban residential space,” Hannah Weber, a comprehensive planner with the county, said in April.
From the petition, Taneytown officials disqualified 225 submitted signatures, including 149 unregistered voters, 52 illegible entries, four blanks, three duplicates, seven nonresidents, and 10 signatures on a page circulated by an unregistered voter.
“There is no time period or curing mechanism available at this time, so the annexation resolution is now effective,” City Manager Jim Wieprecht said Thursday in an email.
Under Maryland law, an issue can be brought to a special election if at least 20% of a municipality’s registered voters sign a referendum petition. On Aug. 1, the Carroll County Board of Elections provided the city and the petition group a list that showed a total of 5,495 registered voters in Taneytown, meaning 1,099 signatures were required to advance a special election.
Jim Thomas, one of the petition organizers, said the group believed the petition needed only 959 verified signatures, based on a total of 4,795 registered voters that city officials stated was correct on July 11. That number was based on elections held in May 2021, the most recent data at the time.
The petition group received the updated list - based on voter registrations for the primary election on July 19 but said no one opened them until Aug. 21. The group’s volunteers kept working from the total number given to them in July, believing they would only use the list to cross-check existing signatures, not change their target number of signatures.
“It was our belief that you can’t change the requirements for a petition two-thirds of the way through it,” Thomas said. “That seemed to serve the [city] and not really stand up to the first information they gave us that we based our petition strategies on.
“Maybe it’s naive of us as beginners in this process, but we made this assumption that the beginning number would be the number we had to shoot [for] and it wasn’t going to be appropriate to change that midstream.”
Thomas said he emailed the city on Aug. 22 to ask about the larger registration number, but the Taneytown clerk did not confirm what figure the city would rely on. Thomas said he decided to stick with the earlier figure, with three days left before the petition deadline.
Wieprecht said the city clerk did reply to the email, confirming a total of 5,495 registered voters.
“Determining how many signatures are needed to petition an annexation to referendum is incumbent on the petition organizers, not the city,” Wieprecht said. “When the city clerk was initially asked in July how many voters were in the city, she responded with the figure we had at the time. I’m confident that when responding to the question, the City Clerk did not state it as being any sort of official number that the organizers should use for their effort.
“It wasn’t until in the final week of the petition effort that they asked the city clerk what number we would use to verify the petition. The clerk promptly provided the 5,495 figure we then had, as by then we’d received the same voter list that the petition group was provided by the Board of Elections in the beginning of August.”
Carroll County Breaking News
Despite the petition’s failure, Thomas believes the number of verified signatures it received still sends a message that voters want an increased voice in the city’s development.
“For us, it’s more that this represents a mandate to the [city] and that the vision for the population for how growth and development occurs is not consistent with the [city’s] vote on this issue,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we still had 800-plus verified signatures which is more than it takes to elect a mayor or council member in this [city],” said Chris Miller, a volunteer who went door-to-door canvassing for the petition and plans to run for Taneytown mayor next year. “We tried our best [on] some of the hottest days of the summer, paired with COVID sickness and everything like that. We got a lot done for what we did.”