Petition seeks to put land-use plans to a vote


In a step forward for growth control advocates, Howard County residents may get to vote on a change in the county charter that would put to referendum future comprehensive rezonings and master plans for development.

Fulton resident Peter J. Oswald, 46, plans to deliver a petition containing about 13,000 signatures to the county Board of Elections today. If enough signatures are approved, the charter amendment would be placed on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The petition drive is a response to last year's comprehensive rezoning of the eastern county, which angered many residents.

"We're trying to put some checks and balances in the land-use decision process," said Mr. Oswald, who coordinated the drive.

In February, the elections board rejected a different petition Mr. Oswald submitted because it applied to a Zoning Board decision.

The board cited 1976 and 1978 Circuit Court rulings that voter referendums can't be used to contest Zoning Board actions.

Residents had objected to a new zoning type called "mixed-use centers," which allows a combination of houses, apartments, shops and businesses. Several large eastern county sites were given the designation.

Currently, comprehensive rezoning is done by a "decision and order" of the Zoning Board. The General Plan, a blueprint for growth and infrastructure, is approved by resolution of the County Council.

Neither can be vetoed by the county executive or put to a referendum.

Under the proposed charter amendment, comprehensive rezoning and the General Plan would be considered council legislation subject to referendum.

Mr. Oswald said he and others who helped gather signatures want to hold council members, who also serve as the Zoning Board, more accountable on land-use decisions.

"What they do has a dramatic effect on the life of everyone in the county, but we can't hold them accountable," Mr. Oswald said. "This is why development can and does get out of control."

Two council members said they couldn't support the concept behind Mr. Oswald's petition.

Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, a 1st District Democrat, said she respects Mr. Oswald's goal, but she also said the proposed charter amendment wouldn't be in the county's "best interest."

Council members use comprehensive rezoning and General Plan revisions to establish a balance of housing types and opportunities for economic development beneficial to the county, Ms. Pendergrass said.

"Though it's not perfect, it's intended to keep an economically and socially healthy county," she said. "I don't see how you can condense a year's worth of work, research and deliberations into a ballot question."

Councilman Charles Feaga, a 5th District Republican, said residents' testimony on zoning matters is welcomed, but the proposed amendment could give them a power that could backfire. Individual property values and the county's revenues and tax rates could be adversely affected if residents are allowed to vote on zoning decisions, he said.

"It would turn what is a semijudicial procedure into a public forum," Mr. Feaga said. "People have a mistaken idea about what democracy is. It doesn't always give the majority the privilege of making laws. We still have to look after individual rights, and that's done better by a court of law or a small governing body."

Del. Martin G. Madden, a District 13B Republican, said he supports the referendum effort because it is the citizens' right to change the county charter if they can't persuade elected officials to act. The proposed amendment is an indication of "pent-up frustrations" on zoning matters, he said.

Mr. Oswald emphasized that the amendment would not apply to piecemeal zoning changes, and that residents could bring to referendum a troubling piece of a comprehensive rezoning, as well as a whole plan.

The Board of Elections must validate 10,000 signatures of registered county voters before the question can be put on the ballot.

Barbara Feaga, director of elections, said the petition does not need the approval of the three-member elections supervisory board because it applies to a provision in the county charter.

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