Even as citizens try to petition to referendum an omnibus rezoning bill covering dozens of Howard County properties, some landowners are moving to avoid the delay.
Final signatures are due today from those who want a ballot item next year challenging the law. But owners of a 24-acre parcel at Routes 100 and 103 in Ellicott City are not waiting -- they have scheduled a community meeting June 16 on rezoning their land, the first parcel in the disputed council bill to be submitted individually.
The landowners are seeking to have the property rezoned for development through what could now be a quicker, but more traditional "piecemeal" approach to the county Zoning Board.
"We were surprised because we didn't even know this was allowed," said Howard Weinstein, a resident of the closest townhouse community to the Ellicott City site, who helped gather signatures for the petition drive. Critics of the Route 100 office park proposal fear traffic congestion from any dense commercial zone allowed there.
Opponents of the so-called "Comp-Lite" zoning bill have collected more than 5,000 signatures to put it on the November 2006 election ballot.
The petition drive was sparked by outrage over rezoning of Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church land for a major expansion. It quickly gathered steam as unhappy residents from various areas joined to protest the process and the council's vote.
But zoning attorney David Carney said some noncontroversial parcels covered in the bill are nearly ready to start building, and are facing difficult financial situations if their owners wait for the referendum.
Carney said lawyers arguing for these parties could use County Council discussions and decisions on the delayed bill to win approval from the Zoning Board.
The irony is that the Zoning Board is made up of the same five County Council members who voted, 4-1, in March to approve the embattled bill.
"We are legally bound if someone brings forth a case to hear them," said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "We have gotten an enormous number of calls [from landowners]."
But Guzzone said the board's schedule is so full that the cases will be difficult to schedule, and the outcomes won't necessarily be the same as the council's decisions.
The council has much more flexibility to consider land uses, he said, while the Zoning Board is legally limited to two standards for rezoning: error or change in the neighborhood. Also, Zoning Board members may not discuss individual cases.
The council has scheduled a 7 p.m. discussion Tuesday on new ways of doing comprehensive rezoning -- including reviewing one area of the county at a time.
The 24-acre Meadowridge Road (Route 103) proposal has sparked anger and confusion among residents of Weinstein's 400-unit townhouse community just east of the parcel, which sits on the south side of Route 100 and the west side of Route 103. Melanie Moser, a land planner representing the owner, refused to comment at the owner's request, she said.
Residents are suspicious of developers pushing rezoning throughout the county, though the bulk of parcels in the council's rezoning bill were along U.S. 40 and U.S. 1.
The community meeting on the proposal originally was scheduled for midafternoon, which shows "the arrogance of the developers and the attorneys," said former County Council member Angela Beltram, who helped lead the referendum effort. The meeting now will take place at 6:30 p.m. June 16 at the Elkridge library.
Residents of Weinstein's community want a lighter-use transition zone on the land closest to Route 103 facing them, and a heavier-use Planned Office Research zone farther back. In the Comp-Lite bill, the council reversed that order but placed the lighter zone on a separate 3.4 acres bordering townhouses along Old Farm Lane south of the wooded land in question.
"This is the second time I've gone through comprehensive rezoning. I thought they should have abolished it last time. It's too much to do all at once," Weinstein said. He said Howard County needs a separate zoning authority instead of having council members fill that function.
But County Councilman David A. Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat who represents much of the Route 100 corridor, said "nothing stops a citizen from coming in and applying piecemeal."