People's counsel fights long odds to get on ballot

Ed Walter is the first to acknowledge that seven weeks isn't much time to collect 10,000 signatures.

But that's exactly what the Woodstock resident is hoping to do, in a long-shot bid to put a zoning proposal on the ballot in November.


Walter wants to see a people's counsel in Howard County - an independent attorney who defends current zoning regulations - and he's willing to work for a referendum, even though two County Council members are trying the simpler method of creating the job through legislation.

Walter doesn't think the recently filed council bill would give enough power to the people's counsel.


Now he's facing an Aug. 14 deadline and hoping for help. It is, he said, "barely" enough time for such a campaign, which he sees as a way to protect Howard County from inappropriate development.

"The odds are greatly against me," Walter said. "But if you don't try, you just never know."

An attorney is drawing up the petition for Walter, who expected to have it yesterday. To finish by Aug. 14, he will need to get an average of 200 signatures a day.

"There are a lot of community associations in Howard County," Walter said. "I expect to contact them all, and hope to recruit volunteers."

Howard County Councilmen Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, filed legislation Thursday for the job - which they dub a "zoning counsel."

Their proposal calls for that person to defend existing regulations at Zoning Board hearings and to answer people's questions about the zoning process.

The councilmen intend it as a part-time, contractual job, rather than a permanent government position.

Because the person hired for the job wouldn't be able to appeal decisions, a county charter amendment isn't needed, as first thought, Guzzone said.


Walter's proposal, which would amend the county charter, goes further: He would give the people's counsel the option of participating in Board of Appeals hearings and to appeal decisions to Circuit Court.

"I think what the councilmen are proposing is a toothless tiger," he said.

Merdon and Guzzone don't see it that way, but they didn't take issue with Walter's referendum goal.

"He certainly has a right to do that," Merdon said.

Guzzone said their proposal is a less complex way for the county to try out the job. It wouldn't have to be the final step, he said.

"I really believe in taking a measured approach and seeing how it works for Howard County," he said.


The petition drive might be a quixotic quest, but Walter, who retired in 1998, is hardly Don Quixote. He was Howard County's traffic engineer and Baltimore's chief engineer for seven years each; he holds a master's degree in civil engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His interest in the people's counsel stems from another crusade.

When Exxon proposed a gas station near Waverly Mansion in Marriottsville, Walter - the president of Historic Waverly Inc. - was among those who showed up at hearings last year to protest. He thought a gas station was inappropriate 100 yards from the 235-year-old house, which was a present from John Eager Howard (governor from 1788-1791) to his son George (governor from 1831 to 1833).

Exxon's proposal is inactive now, although it hasn't been withdrawn.

Walter said the experience convinced him that a people's counsel is needed.

"We have nobody defending existing zoning," he said. "Not having a people's counsel meant we had to go it ourselves.


"To mount a defense against changing zoning - why, it's a major fight," he said. "You have to get a lawyer. You can easily get into thousands and thousands in expenses."

Several residents' associations have expressed support for a people's counsel for the same reason. But some developers have contended that a people's counsel isn't a good use of taxpayer money because the county has an agency and elected officials to enforce zoning regulations.

As for the 10,000 signatures that Walter needs to force a people's counsel referendum - that's 10,000 signatures from registered Howard County voters.

He figures he ought to get more folks to sign on, just in case.

"For safety, you really need 12,000," he said.