Turf battles

The Baltimore Sun

If getting a new development approved and built is a battle, the skirmishes are escalating in and around Turf Valley.

After the recent launch of a petition drive challenging a law that that affects the size of grocery stores, the Howard County Chamber of Commerce has issued a call to increase the number of signatures required on such a petition.

"The ... County Charter requirement for 5,000 signatures to petition the ... action of elected bodies to referendum is low and antiquated," read an "advocacy alert" the chamber e-mailed to 1,600 people at 850 businesses last week.

The threshold signature number, the letter said, should "reflect a reasonable percentage of the registered voters in Howard County, rather than a fixed number."

The letter is the latest volley in a back-and-forth between developers of the Town Center at Turf Valley, a shopping center now in the planning stages, and a small activist group that calls itself Howard County Citizens for Open Government.

Marc Norman, the group's organizer, says the county approved the project with too little study and too much secrecy.

"This is too big a change to go through with so little public attention," says Norman, a Turf Valley resident and frequent critic of Mangione Family Enterprises, the company that owns the 809-acre golf-and-residential community near Marriottsville.

The exchange of fire began in the fall, when the County Council voted to approve a zoning regulation amendment, ZRA-100, which increased the size of grocery stores permitted in Turf Valley from 18,000 to 55,000 square feet. The change allows for a store the size of a smaller Safeway or Giant supermarket rather than, say, a Trader Joe's.

For several weeks, Norman's group has been circulating a petition to take the new law, Council Bill 58, to public referendum.

If it secures 2,500 signatures from county residents by Jan.5, and another 2,500 by Feb. 4, the law would be suspended. County voters would then decide its fate during a general election in November 2010.

Town Center at Turf Valley is scheduled to open in 2011.

As of Wednesday, Norman said his group had amassed more than 2,000 signatures, and he expects to meet all deadlines.

Greenberg Gibbons Commercial, the Owings Mills-based retail property specialist behind Town Center at Turf Valley, says in today's economy, no shopping center with an anchor supermarket smaller than 55,000 square feet could survive.

"We'd have to explore other options" should the law be taken to referendum, said company president Brian Gibbons. That could include canceling the project, Gibbons said, though he called that unlikely.

Many Turf Valley residents have spoken on behalf of the new law and the planned shopping center. Greenberg Gibbons met with associations for two of its major neighborhoods, the Vistas and the Legends, both of which voted in support.

Later, when residents in Turf Valley Overlook, a nearby condominium complex, complained they had not been contacted about the project, Gibbons met with them and secured their approval as well.

Heather Carey, a Legends resident, says the project as designed would bring an "enormously attractive" shopping area to Turf Valley, that the access routes proposed would actually reduce traffic, and that most of her neighbors favor the project.

Norman and others inside and outside the community see things differently. A bigger grocery store, they say, would draw shoppers from elsewhere in the county, increasing traffic in Turf Valley and along I-70, and hurt business at nearby supermarkets.

That, Norman said, shows the county has failed to take a comprehensive view of the project and its implications.

In a recent letter to the council, the Howard County Citizens Association, a watchdog group, expressed support for the referendum. CB 58 is "an example of piecemeal land-use changes that result in haphazard development," the letter said.

Norman would not disclose the size of his group's membership. However, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27, which represents employees of Safeway and Giant supermarkets, have been helping circulate the petition.

The union's members also oppose the 160,000-square-foot Wegman's store planned for Columbia.

Norman, who has frequently accused county officials of too-cozy relations with developers, admits the council acted legally in passing the law but says zoning procedures themselves should be more transparent.

The chamber suggested it would press for the charter change, in part because members of its legislative committee believe the current signature threshold is far too small to reflect recent growth in the population of the county, which is home to about 280,000.

The effort by Norman's group unfairly "sends a negative message to those seeking to business here in our community," the advocacy alert said.

By law, the council can place a charter amendment on the ballot before a general election. So can a citizen's group, assuming it collects at least 5,000 signatures in support.

There hasn't been such an amendment in 13 years, said Sheila Tolliver, administrator to the council.

Norman, who believes the referendum will "resonate" across the county, said the chamber's letter shows "some politicians and members of the business community" are attempting to use CB 58 "as an excuse to disenfranchise citizens" by making it too difficult and too expensive to challenge council decisions.

Duane Carey, co-chair of the chamber's legislative committee, disagreed.

"You don't need $400/hr attorneys, or any attorneys for that matter, to attend Planning Board hearings and have your voice heard," he said in an e-mail response to a reporter's questions. "Nor do you need an attorney to attend County Council meetings and have your voice heard. We citizens have access to the decision makers at every step of the process."

In the Dec. 28 edition of the Howard County section, an article about residents' reaction to a county law to allow for a larger grocery store in Turf Valley incorrectly identified Helen Carey, a resident of the community.The article also incorrectly described the response of the Vistas neighborhood association to a presentation by the developer. Association members gave verbal approval to the plan for the shopping center.The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.
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