Bill seeks full disclosure in bids for zoning regulation amendments

The Baltimore Sun

Howard's state legislators and the Ulman administration are backing a General Assembly bill that would require people who apply for changes in county zoning laws to disclose political donations to county elected officials.

It's a late addition to the list of local legislation for the 90-day session that starts this month. But the county delegation of state legislators won't vote on it until after their next public hearing Feb. 4.

"It makes sense. You can't go wrong with full disclosure," said state Sen. James N. Robey, chairman of the Senate delegation.

Del. Guy Guzzone, chairman of the House of Delegates members, and County Executive Ken Ulman also support the measure.

The League of Women Voters requested the bill, according to Grace Kubofcik, co-president of the group. In examining zoning regulation amendments (ZRA), the league noticed that some applicants disclosed political donations, while others did not, Kubofcik said. The law requires disclosure in zoning cases that go before the county zoning board, league officials reasoned, so why not for ZRAs?

The bill represents the latest critical scrutiny of these changes to county zoning regulations that seem increasingly popular among landowners who don't want to seek a traditional zoning change from the county zoning board.

The ZRA issue also arose during last week's County Council meeting, when Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, tried to kill one ZRA bill immediately upon introduction Jan. 5 rather than allow a public hearing on Jan. 21.

The bill would allow the owners of parcels of less than 2 acres along the U.S. 1 corridor to develop their land for apartments or townhouses if the property is next to land already approved for similar intense development.

James R. and Robert M. Buch want to do just that with their 1.4-acre parcel at the western edge of the former Aladdin Village Mobile Home Park near Route 175. County planners recommended rejecting the proposal because the change would apply to any parcel along U.S. 1, opening the door to dense new developments on small parcels. The Planning Board concurred, unanimously.

Watson argued that, given those rejections and the suggestion that the Buchs ask for a traditional zoning change, it would be a waste of time to go through the normal process of a hearing, work session discussion and then a vote.

"This has broad and negative implications for the Route 1 corridor," Watson said.

But other members disagreed, saying the council's normal process should be followed, even if the bill ultimately fails. The vote was 4-1.

Petition drive moves ahead

A petition drive to bring about a referendum on the County Council's unanimous approval of a ZRA that would allow a larger supermarket in a proposed village center at Turf Valley has achieved an initial goal.

Election board officials said Marc Norman, the Turf Valley resident who launched the effort, submitted about 3,300 names before the Jan. 5 deadline when at least 2,500 were required.

The board's deputy administrator, Guy Mickley, said the staff is poring over the names to see how many are valid. But the board advised the council that Bill 58 should not be enforced as law for 30 more days.

Norman has until Feb. 4 to submit a total of 5,000 valid names. If that effort is successful, approval of any plans for the larger supermarket would be halted until the measure goes to a vote in the 2010 election. Council bills normally take effect 61 days after signing. The measure, which was signed Nov. 6., raised the maximum allowable size to 55,000 square feet, up from the 18,000-square-foot limit set in 1993.

"We're extremely pleased with the response countywide," Norman said. "People are very concerned about developers' influence."

Norman maintains that the project symbolizes piecemeal approvals made without considering the broader infrastructure needs or the consequences for older shopping centers in the area.

He said he heads an ad hoc group called Howard County Citizens for Open Government but has declined to say how big the group is or who else is in it.

A more efficient police car

With a national economic stimulus package that could balloon to $850 billion under discussion, County Executive Ken Ulman has a suggestion he thinks combines goals for energy savings with the current problem faced by the Big Three auto manufacturers. It would also help local governments all across the land.

Why not a government promise to buy a guaranteed number of domestically produced vehicles from any company that can come up with a super fuel-efficient police cruiser?

In a letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, with copies to the heads of the three automakers and the United Auto Workers, Ulman wrote:

"When the U.S. auto industry can produce a hybrid police cruiser capable of performing at the level of the current Ford Crown Victoria or Dodge Charger models, for example, Howard County and jurisdictions across the country will be able to reduce their operating expenses by as much as 67 percent for law enforcement vehicles."

Ulman said it costs the county 39 cents per mile to operate its V8-engine-powered police fleet, compared with 13 to 28 cents per mile for hybrid sedans and small SUVs.

"I've got to believe that with the right incentives, they can create a very high performing and efficient police car," Ulman said in an interview. "I just don't buy that they can't do it."

The proposal could be an incentive to produce something that's needed and would help both government and the private automakers.

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