A group of development-wary residents have filed a lawsuit against Howard County that claims the government's process of making land-use decisions illegally denies citizens the right to challenge them by referendum.
The 124-page suit, filed in federal court by residents contesting three prominent development projects, is the latest salvo in the decades-long clash over growth in the well-heeled county of about 270,000.
The suit alleges that the county has violated the county charter for years by making land-use decisions via County Council resolutions and administrative decisions instead of by bill or ordinance. The practice, according to attorney Susan B. Gray and several independent plaintiffs, denies citizens the ability to petition decisions to referendum because only bills can go to voters.
"It's very frustrating for us as citizens to get things to referendum or review," said Frank Martin, a resident of the Turf Valley community and a plaintiff. Martin has been critical of a developer's plan to add hundreds of homes to Turf Valley, an 800-acre golf course community in western Ellicott City.
The suit names County Executive Ken Ulman, the former executive, James N. Robey, and current and former top administration, public works and planning officials. The suit, filed Feb. 17 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, asks authorities to declare a series of Howard laws void, seeks federal supervision of county land-use decisions and requests $10 million in damages.
An official called the suit frivolous.
"This is not a land-use case. It goes well beyond zoning and is an attempt to enmesh the federal court in the day-to-day administration of county government," Kevin Enright, an administration spokesman, said in an e-mail. "It is shameful that ... county resources are being devoted to defending this kind of meritless lawsuit."
Paul F. Kendall, a Turf Valley resident who is the lead plaintiff, said the suit should have been filed 15 years ago, when, he said, county officials approved laws designed to negate a successful 1994 referendum requiring land-use decisions be done with bills.
"These things have been fought in isolation," he said about recent battles over Turf Valley, the Cattail Creek senior housing development in the western part of the county, and a proposed Wegmans store in Columbia.
The suit focuses on land-use decisions over the past three years. Residents of Turf Valley and Cattail Creek are plaintiffs, along with an opponent to Wegmans.
"Many of the legislative actions ... benefited well-entrenched, politically connected, wealthy developers and landowners and their attorneys by preventing public objection through the mechanism of the referendum," the suit alleges.