Citizen activist John W. Taylor of Highland says the County Council should order the Rural Land Use Study Commission to hold a second public hearing "or dismiss the commission and start over."

The commission, which is considering zoning alternatives in the western part ofthe county, last week voted 4-3 against a second hearing despite a request from council chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, who cited "the importance of this issue and the interest by citizens."

The commission was hooted down at a hearing June 5 to hear citizens' reactions to its preliminary findings. Several days later, a citizens group critical of the commission presented a 1,200-signature petition to council member Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, demanding more hearings.

In the three weeks since the hearing, one commission member, Randall Nixon, received an anonymous death threat, and commission chairman Ted Mariani has received several menacing calls.

In rejecting the request for another hearing, the commission appeared persuaded by the arguments of fellow member and former state Sen. James Clark, who said the commission would not have enough time to hold another hearing and complete its report before Oct 31.

On that date, a moratorium on subdivision construction in the western part of the county ends. The council hopes to have either an adequate-facilities ordinance or comprehensive rezoning in place by then.

"We've done our job," Clark said. "The council cannot escape going through the hearing process. To put this off for another month puts them in too much of a squeeze."

"This is much too important an issue to let Oct. 31 interfere," Taylor said. "It gives the appearance of something being railroaded through and it is."

The council appointed the seven-member ad hoc group in January and directed it to explore ways the county might use cluster development to save open space and report its findingsto the council by July 1.

That committee already has ruled out small villages of 200 to 400 units in favor of "simple clusters" and hamlets of six to 50 homes. Clusters would have a 70 percent open spacerequirement and hamlets would have an 80 percent requirement.

Opponents say their chief objection to clustering is that it will be a prelude to town house and apartment development, and open space will not be preserved.

Taylor said that by refusing to hold another hearing, the commission shows a bias he says has existed all along.

"Frankly, under the circumstances, their report doesn't have any value," he said.

Gray adamantly disagreed. Although he is "disappointed"the commission will not hold another hearing, he said he has been "impressed with their commitment" and the seriousness with which they have accepted the council mandate. He said he "regrets that a group ofsuch dedicated citizens had to sit through such a controversial meeting."

Gray blamed the controversy on "a lot of misinformation spread out" before the meeting. He said he had hoped a second hearing would "clarify the misinformation" expressed at the first.

Howard Countians for Responsible Growth, the citizens' lobby of which Taylor ispresident, distributed anti-cluster fliers to 1,800 households priorto the hearing.

The fliers accused commission members of being unduly influenced by developers who want to build more than the currentone-house-per-three-acre zoning allows.

The fliers also said cluster zoning could contaminate ground water and would preserve open space only temporarily.

Speakers at the hearing characterized commission members as tools of developers and vehemently demanded that clustering ideas be scrapped.

Since that meeting, Nixon, who operates aSunday brunch and dinner restaurant in the barn on his farm in West Friendship, received a "garbled message filed with racial epithets and obscenities" on his answering machine in which a male caller said, "I'm gonna get you, and I'm gonna blow up your barn."

Nixon, who is black, gave a tape of the message to police, but says there is "notvery much they can do" since the call was anonymous.

He said he has "been here long enough not to feel afraid. My first reaction was to get off the commission, but I can't live in fear."

Nixon last week voted with the minority to hold a second hearing because he thought it would lend "credibility" to the commission's report.

"If there is any chance for rational dialogue, we should take it," Nixon said.

Meanwhile, the commission is polishing its draft report. It plans to recommend that copies be placed in the public library for 30 days so citizens can review it and forward comments to the council.

The commission's primary recommendation will be that the county "support and strengthen" its highly successful agricultural land preservation program.

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