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Suit aims to nullify petition campaign


A group of 15 Howard County landowners and developers whose County Council-approved rezoning is being delayed by a referendum campaign have filed a lawsuit claiming the petitions are illegal.

If successful, the suit would nullify the grass-roots campaign that submitted more than 6,000 signatures certified by the county elections board that would put the issue on the November 2006 ballot. The suit was filed this week against the county and state elections boards.

Guy Harriman, chairman of Howard's election board, was in New England this week and said yesterday that he had not heard about the suit. Neither had Betty Nordass, county election board administrator.

"I'm not surprised," Harriman said, though he did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, the church-expansion rezoning that sparked the referendum drive is being indefinitely delayed, according to Sang Oh, attorney for Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church on St. Johns Lane in Ellicott City.

It was the council's 4-1 vote March 7 to approve the church's rezoning request as part of the larger "Comp Lite" bill that outraged nearby residents.

Quoting a statement from the pastor, the Rev. Walter Lee, Oh said church leaders decided not to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

"In the meantime, the church building project has been placed on hold. This decision will not be altered by the litigation. If the Promise Center [expansion] does move forward at some point, we will work with the community to achieve our goals," the statement said.

The petition campaign was designed to defeat the dozens of rezoning decisions included in the County Council's "Comp Lite" zoning bill.

The lawsuit charges that the petitions did not accurately explain to prospective signers the zoning changes in the County Council bill, misleading them and violating Maryland law. Some people who signed the sheets hurt their own noncontroversial zoning changes also covered by the bill, the lawsuit asserts - including residents of Terra Maria, who wanted a community swimming pool.

"I think we have an excellent chance," said attorney Joseph J. Mezzanotte of Whiteford, Taylor and Preston's Columbia office. "The [election] board cannot and should not have certified the petitions," he said.

Mezzanotte said he has requested an early court hearing.

Angela Beltram, a former County Council member who helped organize the signature drive, scorned the suit and rejected the notion that the petition summary was deficient - noting that the group used the council's summary of the bill.

"If it was deficient, then the County Council bill itself was deficient," she said.

She added that her group likely will not hire an attorney, but will allow the election board to defend itself.

"I knew there'd be a challenge in some way," Beltram said. "It's all a farce."

The suit claimed otherwise.

"The lack of a fair and accurate summary of the substantive provisions of the Comp Lite Legislation resulted in numerous Howard County citizens signing the petition without knowing ... the irreparable harm that could be inflicted," the suit said.

The suit claims, for example, that some residents of Terra Maria, a small neotraditional development along Frederick Road, signed the petition without realizing it would delay their rezoning to allow a community swimming pool.

Similarly, the suit said members of St. John Baptist Church, 8910 Old Annapolis Road, signed the petitions, not realizing that a zoning change their church had requested to subdivide and sell a land parcel would be affected. There was no opposition to the St. John's request, which was also approved in the Comp Lite bill.

But Beltram denied misleading anyone.

"I told leaders there [Terra Maria] that this ... would not help them," she said.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who alone opposed the Korean church rezoning and the bill, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the legal process should be left to take its course.

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