Democrat Ken Ulman and independent C. Stephen Wallis are using more aggressive tactics against Republican Christopher J. Merdon as the three vie to be Howard County's next executive.
Ulman confronted his toughest critics on the campaign's most contentious issue - development - last week at a forum in Merdon's political backyard, while Wallis made a strong pitch for voters to reject both county councilmen.
The forum, which featured a standing-room-only crowd at the Ellicott City Senior Center, was sponsored by a citizens group angry at Ulman's vote supporting the zoning bill known as "Comp Lite." But the one-term council Democrat reversed his usual defensive tactics and attacked Republican Merdon's record on budget and growth issues.
County Council candidates also participated in the Wednesday night forum.
Wallis strenuously argued that voters should reject both major political parties, ignore campaign news releases, and vote for him.
"You don't need a political guy to be county executive," the Harper's Choice Middle School principal said. "It ought not be political."
Comp Lite was "unethical" and would never have occurred "on my watch," he said. Wallis also said it is "ridiculous" that council members who take big campaign contributions from developers also sit as the county Zoning Board.
"We should depoliticize the Zoning Board," he said, and hire an independent professional to do the job.
One council candidate, District 1 Democrat Courtney Watson, said the bill "was not legal" in her view, because it allowed extra parcels to be rezoned at the end of the process.
Merdon talked about his two-term council experience and his plans for slowing growth. He said he wants to reorganize the planning process for central Columbia's redevelopment, curb infill development and charge developers higher impact fees on new homes.
He also noted his lone vote against the Comp Lite bill. The council's 4-1 approval of the bill sparked a petition drive and court fight partly because the bill included rezoning for a major church expansion project on St. Johns Lane in Ellicott City - in Merdon's district.
"I have credibility on the issue of planning and zoning," Merdon said. "I'm the only county executive candidate who has a plan for slowing growth."
But Ulman said plans and promises don't matter, compared with past actions.
"This election, I really believe, is a choice between a record of leadership versus election-year rhetoric," Ulman began at the forum.
Ulman and Wallis derided Merdon's series of campaign policy announcements.
Ulman said that he "stood up" for schools, libraries and public safety services "over the objection of my Republican opponent," a reference to the 2003 budget fight over a tax increase that Democrats pushed through and the services the revenues have helped support.
Then he moved to development, the issue that Merdon has worked to make his own.
"In eight years in office, my Republican opponent has never introduced one piece of legislation on infill development. Never once," Ulman said.
Large new homes squeezed onto small leftover lots in Ellicott City and Elkridge have been a major voter complaint this year, most candidates agree.
Ulman mentioned several community zoning disputes that he helped mediate in his district, and he said the developers in some of those disputed cases now have Merdon campaign signs on their land. "That's not a coincidence, ladies and gentlemen."
Ulman and Merdon have received major infusions of campaign cash from the development industry.
On Comp Lite, Ulman said an unfinished study of the U.S. 40 corridor and a few other leftover issues made another round of rezonings necessary after the once-a-decade, comprehensive rezoning of the county in 2003.
"All five council members voted to create this process, all five of us," he said. "Chris Merdon voted for it. I voted for it. He now stands up and tells you it created 2,000 [new] residential units.
"What he doesn't tell you is just a few months later, when the two major properties, Aladdin and Bluestream, on Route 1 came in to the Zoning Board, he voted for them. So the 2,000 units he talks about in Comp Lite he actually voted for just a few months later. And I'll tell you that the  General Plan he voted for calls for 30,000 [potential] residential units to be built in this county. Where are they going to go?"
Ulman said Merdon voted for the major new development along U.S. 1 as individual amendments during the Comp Lite process but then voted against the entire Comp Lite bill. Later, as a Zoning Board member, he voted for them again.
Merdon replied that Ulman had oversimplified a complex series of decisions that it would take him "two hours" to explain. He voted for rezoning individual parcels along U.S. 1 for housing, he said, because they were "good pieces" of the Comp Lite legislation. "Some things were good things. Some things were bad things," Merdon said.
"He can stand up here and confuse you real quick in two minutes" but the record is clear, Merdon said. Merdon also said he sponsored tighter development controls around crowded schools and supported building more classrooms.
What Ulman did not explain is that the council legislatively can change the zoning on any parcel it wishes to during the once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning. In contrast, the Zoning Board is legally bound to approve rezoning for a parcel if the applicant can prove a change in the neighborhood or an error.
Merdon agreed he did not object to creating the Comp Lite process, but he said, "Where we went wrong was where other pieces of property filtered in. I voted against Comp Lite [in the end] because the process was broken."
Merdon also was critical of the endorsement Ulman received from the county chapter of the Sierra Club, a private, nonpartisan environmental group.
"The Sierra Club has never endorsed a Republican," Merdon told the crowd Wednesday night. "There's a bit of bias there."
But Ken Clark, president of Howard's Sierra Club chapter, said Thursday that the club has endorsed two Howard Republicans: Sen. Martin G. Madden in 1998, and his successor, Sandra B. Schrader, in 2002, though not this year. He said the club backed Ulman because the Democrat championed the county smoking ban in public buildings and because Merdon backed rezoning a 42-acre parcel on Ilchester Road for housing, while Ulman opposed it.
Ulman explained why he voted to approve the expansion - without public hearings - of Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church on St. Johns Lane, the issue that sparked the campaign against Comp Lite.
He said it was because of the multiyear legal battle that First Baptist Church of Guilford had to endure in planning an expansion using an older conditional-use process. The Guilford church got the same zoning designation that Korean Presbyterian received, Ulman noted, and Merdon supported that.
"It's not just about process," Ulman said. "It's about location."