Howard County growth-control advocates apparently have mustered some holiday cheer this week after winning a court skirmish with county lawyers and turning in more than 3,000 petition signatures toward a referendum on county zoning.
"We're ecstatic, we're pleased," said Susan Gray, a Highland resident involved in three lawsuits pending against county planning and zoning policy and decisions.
One suit challenged a county zoning board decision to rezone 682 rural acres in Marriottsville and Woodstock for Waverly Woods II, a development of nearly 1,000 homes, a shopping center and 1 million square feet of commercial space.
County lawyers had asked Circuit Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. to dismiss the suit because zoning opponents failed to provide a complete record of the zoning board proceeding, but the judge ruled against the county.
Typing of such a lengthy transcript could have cost opponents ** as much as $15,000, possibly preventing the case from going to trial.
The decision by Judge Sybert, which attorneys on both sides received Friday, allowed opponents of the development to proceed to trial with an abbreviated transcript of the 16-day public zoning hearing.
Ms. Gray said the decision was also a bright sign for other lawsuits challenging the county's 1990 General Plan and the comprehensive rezoning of the eastern half of the county, signed in October by County Council members, sitting as the Zoning Board.
The board rezoned nearly 12,000 acres of eastern county land, including 820 acres in rural Fulton, which council members designated as a future "mixed-use" center with apartments, houses, shops and businesses.
County planners and council members have argued that the county needs to provide for such planned developments to prevent suburban sprawl. Additional commercial development will also add to the county's tax base, they say.
Council members have pointed out that they rejected many proposed changes, including the largest, a 1,085-acre mixed-use center mostly owned by the Rouse Co.
Opposition to the county's land-use process grew out of opposition to the Fulton center, the Waverly Woods project and other zoning changes, such as an Ellicott City rezoning that permits Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to build a warehouse-sized Sam's Club membership store.
In one lawsuit, which challenges the zoning map and regulation changes themselves, opponents have notified the Zoning Board's administrative assistant that they want the transcript of zoning proceedings typed. Ms. Gray said she hoped that that transcript could also be submitted in an abbreviated form, so opponents could avoid paying an estimated $14,000 to have it typed.
"Were shooting to raise $14,000, and people have been very positive to date," Ms. Gray said. "We even have developers and builders who are willing to kick in money . . . A lot of people are very discontented with the process."
Peter J. Oswald says he can name at least 3,420 people who want to change the process.
That's the number of signatures he turned in to the county election board last Thursday on a petition challenging eastern comprehensive rezoning and its accompanying zoning regulations for the entire county.
"I was shocked. I thought if we hit 2,500, we'd be lucky," Mr. Oswald said.
Turning in at least 2,500 signatures gives the petitioners 30 extra days -- until Jan. 16 -- to get a total of 5,000 verifiable signatures, checked against voter registration lists, required to put a county law on next November's ballot.
The problem is, comprehensive rezoning is not a law, and cannot be petitioned to referendum.
So Mr. Oswald and more than 80 other county residents have also been circulating another petition, one that would put a charter amendment on the ballot for next year. The amendment would make comprehensive rezoning and the county's general plan subject to petition and approval by voters.
One of the pending lawsuits would accomplish the same thing.
Charter amendments require at least 10,000 signatures or 10 percent of the county's registered voters, whichever is less. Mr. Oswald said petitioners have so far collected about 3,700 signatures and have until August to reach their goal.
County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd said petitioning government was "part of the democratic process," but "I don't think doing zoning by plebiscite is what someone may want either.
"The citizens have had ample opportunity to participate in the [zoning] process," he said. "Democracy, it guarantees citizen participation. It doesn't guarantee them the results that they want."