Appeals court won't revive Howard petition drive over grocer

A state appeals court has refused to revive a petition that would allow Howard County voters to weigh in on the zoning approval for a supermarket at a proposed shopping center in Turf Valley.

The county's elections officials correctly decided that opponents of the supermarket failed to garner enough valid petition signatures needed to place the store's zoning approval on the ballot, a state appeals court ruled last week.

The challenge to the 2008 zoning change was brought by the Howard County Citizens for Open Government. It has been trying to turn the zoning for the grocery store into a referendum question for three years.

"This can't be a surprise to anybody," said Howard County election board attorney Gerald M. Richman. "It affirms what the Howard County board of elections did"— that it did not accept the signatures because they were incomplete.

Howard's elections board said in early 2009 that the Citizens for Open Government had more than the 2,500 signatures needed to keep the petition drive going, but it soon reversed that decision. It said that the petitioners did not follow rules for petition signatures laid out in a December 2008 Court of Appeals decision and fell short of the required number.

"We will look at the viability of an appeal to the Court of Appeals," said Marc E. Norman of Ellicott City, who is active with the group and was one of the people who contended that the local election board was wrong to throw out most of the petition signatures submitted.

"It's an outrage that the government seems to thwart the will of the people, to thumb their nose at the will of the people," he said, calling it "indicative of the sentiment felt by the Occupy Wall Street movement."

The organization contended its state and federal constitutional rights were trampled, but the Court of Special Appeals called its arguments "unpersuasive" in an opinion issued last week.

Federal courts previously dismissed constitutional arguments brought by an opponent, ruling that there were no federal constitutional issues involved in the case.

Mangione Family Enterprises, owner of Turf Valley, has proposed a massive redevelopment of the 809-acre hotel and golf course property. The project would include the shopping center near Marriottsville Road and U.S. 40, a site that the County Council rezoned in late 2008 to allow for a 55,000-square-foot supermarket instead of the original plan of a smaller store. The size of the shopping center did not change.

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