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Zoning fight re-energizes ex-member of council


Angela and Peter "Ed" Beltram appear the picture of contented retirement, from his large backyard vegetable garden to the sun-splashed family room they added to the Ellicott City rancher in which they have lived for four decades.

But appearances can be deceiving.

This spring, the house was campaign central for a remarkably successful grass-roots zoning petition drive that participants said might not have succeeded without the former Democratic county councilwoman's wisdom and experience.

In weeks, the cadre of volunteers she helped organize gathered more than 6,000 valid signatures protesting County Council approval of multiple rezonings in a "Comp Lite" bill - enough to put the measure on the November 2006 election ballot. A lawsuit filed last week challenging the petitions will not deter the group, Beltram said.

Petitions and paraphernalia were piled for weeks in her kitchen and dining room while the energetic 65-year-old emerged from a seemingly content retirement to lead the kind of street-level community zoning fight that was par for the course when Angela Beltram held public office from 1986 to 1990.

"Man, my house was a mess," she said with a chuckle recently, recalling the frenzy of activity. For the first few weeks, she said, "I couldn't eat or sleep much. I put off a lot of things I had to do."

Now, after 15 years of consistent but low-profile community activism, Beltram finds herself a hero to some - though not to all - and her supporters are urging her to run for the County Council again.

After all, Ed Beltram said, her friends argue that "you're doing these things anyway," to support the referendum.

But it was not a campaign anyone involved in it had ever planned or expected.

Stung by the council's approval in March of a zoning change for expansion of Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church near their north St. Johns Lane community, her coalition of angry suburbanites felt they were ignored and shown disrespect. The fight has laid bare a split among suburbanites outside Columbia who are resentful of Howard's increasing urbanization and the county leaders who welcome it.

But it took Beltram's determination and organizing ability to make the effort a success, they said.

"It was difficult, logistically, to figure out how to take the bill to referendum, and initially there was a lot of conflicting advice and information," said Mary Catherine Cochran, one of the group's key supporters. "We would not have succeeded if Angie had not stepped forward as the point person. Her experience and her leadership was essential to our success."

To achieve that, Beltram drew on decades of experience on the council and before that as a participant in everything from the county League of Women Voters to the Planning Board, the Charter Review Commission and an earlier ad hoc zoning group called the Citizens Allied for Responsible and Effective Zoning.

Referendum activists are urging Beltram to campaign for the ballot initiative and for office again next year, when the district's county councilman, Republican Christopher J. Merdon, plans to run for county executive.

'She has the energy'

"I really would like to see her run," said Patricia Casal, another zoning critic heavily involved in the campaign. "It's obvious that it's still in her blood. It's obvious she has the energy, and she's in touch with the people. She would make a great addition to the council."

Not everyone is a fan, though.

Sue Song, president of the Howard County Korean American Community Association, said she feels the Korean church paid the price for what may be Beltram's political agenda.

"In order to be a politician, you need to have an agenda for the general community," Song said. "It seems to me they're using the church for a bigger picture. It's a tool to be a politician."

George A. Ford Jr., a Columbia resident, felt even more strongly, charging in a letter to The Sun that Beltram is leading "an unconscious racist effort against the Koreans."

Beltram and her supporters vehemently deny both accusations. "I resent the implication that this had to do with race or the ethnic background of the church members," Beltram said. The group has insisted its members aren't against the church's expansion - just the way the rezoning was done.

The catalyst

The church issue might have been a catalyst, she said, but it merely ignited a chorus of simmering complaints countywide about the poor way group members feel the County Council handled a second round of comprehensive zoning issues.

The St. Johns community got angry, Beltram said, only because it felt blindsided by the church's attempts to get rezoning for a major expansion without notifying neighbors or telling them what was being planned. Then the residents felt pushed aside by the council's 4-1 vote on the issue. Only Merdon voted the residents' way.

Beltram said she thought the council was reviewing leftover issues from the 2003 comprehensive rezoning and recommendations from the U.S. 40 task force on which she served.

"I found out later they were accepting other [rezoning] requests," she said. "I went to a hearing and stayed until midnight. A week or two later, I read in the paper that the church had come up and [the Planning Board] had recommended in favor" of rezoning.

That's when she got busy, printing 200 fliers to warn neighbors to attend a later County Council hearing.

"People who signed these petitions are very upset about the attitude of the County Council," Beltram said. "This was a nonpartisan effort."

An avid golfer who works a few days a week at the Waverly Woods course, Beltram is flattered at her newfound celebrity and says "it has been fun," but she is reluctant to run again.

"I will serve if drafted, but I won't run," she said, recalling that candidates for public office do not own their time. "You have to do things people want you to do," such as attending three meetings a night.

Those who have known Beltram over her career as a community and Democratic activist say that once riled, she is a formidable force.

"She's tough and tenacious and dedicated," said former five-term councilman C. Vernon Gray. "She doesn't take any backward steps for anyone. She's a fighter."

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who was county executive when Beltram served on the council, said she is not surprised by the former councilwoman's success.

"When there's something she really cares about, she's a very determined, energetic person," Bobo said.

Darrell E. Drown, the Republican who beat her in 1990, said he respects Beltram's strengths: "She has a bulldog determination when she grabs ahold of an issue. She has an issue here that obviously has some traction in the community."

Even in those circumstances, though, he said, "It takes someone to put the rubber on the road. Angie is the kind of person to do the work."

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