In a far-reaching decision likely to keep the contentious Comp Lite zoning referendum off Howard County's election ballot, county election officials yesterday resolved not to challenge a state appellate court ruling invalidating the referendum petitions.
The Board of Elections had until July 6 to seek a review of the opinion by the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court, that the petitions were defective because they gave signers too little information. The county elections board decision not to challenge it has implications for developers and their opponents.
First, it appears that individual projects in the original Comp Lite omnibus zoning bill approved by the County Council last year -- including an office park in Ellicott City -- may now go forward. It could also spark calls to change the laws governing referendums and could influence the fate of candidates in this year's election.
Development critics who worked for months to gather more than 7,000 signatures to put the complex zoning bill on the ballot were angry.
"How many curse words do you want me to use? We're certainly disgusted," said Howard Weinstein, a community leader who spent months fighting a proposed office park at Routes 100 and 103 that the bill would permit.
"The fallout's going to be tremendous. The court took that decision out of the hands of the people," said Mary Catherine Cochran, a leader among the referendum's supporters. "The issue for referendum wasn't for or against Comp Lite. It was for putting it on the ballot."
But the board's decision gratified developers and their supporters.
"It's the correct decision. I believe nine out of 10 people did not know what they were signing," said Charles C. Feaga, a Republican County Council member from western Howard who joined three council Democrats to vote for the Comp Lite bill, which rezoned 38 parcels and made 49 zoning law amendments.
The referendum, Feaga said, represents "zoning by plebiscite," which he believes is wrong.
Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican running for county executive, voted against the bill.
The election board's decision is "unfortunate," Merdon said. "Many citizens spent days of their lives gathering signatures and deserve to have their petition reviewed to the fullest extent."
Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat also running for county executive, said, "I understand that people are concerned and frustrated. That's why I've been so focused on offering [zoning] improvements."
Kristine Rea, an attorney who helped represent landowners and developers in the case, believes that the court ruling "will have a substantial impact on the zoning process" by "providing guidance for local election boards."
The decision raised questions about the county's referendum laws because to meet the court's standard referendum supporters might have had to present signers with a description of all the changes and amendments.
"We're accepting the [lower court] decision," said elections board Chairman Guy L. Harriman, who refused to explain the board's reasoning after the closed meeting.
The decision was made by Harriman, a Republican, and James E. Poole, a Democrat. The third voting member, Brenda L. Morstein, a Republican, was not present.
Donald R. Reuwer Jr., a developer who is a party to the case, defended the Comp Lite bill. For example, he said the bill requires more moderate-income housing at one particular redevelopment project, the Aladdin Village Mobile Home Park on U.S. 1, than did the county Zoning Board.
"I think there was a lot of time, effort and energy spent in Comp Lite," he said. "The petition tried to trivialize a very serious issue."
But Angela Beltram, who led the referendum campaign, said the decision is "unfair to the citizens. I think our rights have been taken away."
She said citizens who fought the Ellicott City office park in Weinstein's neighborhood and won their case before the Zoning Board now will likely see that office park built anyway.
Comp Lite's revival also means that if the leaders of Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church choose to, they can go forward with plans for a major expansion on 28 acres they own on St. Johns Lane -- the issue that initially sparked the voter revolt.