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Howard County residents fighting development of a proposed hotel and golf club said in court on Friday that they should be allowed to revive a petition to block the project, an argument that, if successful, could have broad implications on voter efforts to overturn government actions.

The suit challenges an interpretation of Maryland's rules for signatures on petitions that the residents say make it almost impossible to organize a referendum to place any issue before the voters.

The case centers on zoning approval granted by the Howard County Council last year for a full-size supermarket at western Ellicott City's Turf Valley, an 809-acre golf and hotel resort being redeveloped.

Although they've failed twice in federal court, Turf Valley resident Marc Norman and his allies are now trying to convince Howard Circuit Judge Timothy J. McCrone that the election board's decision to invalidate petition signatures amounts to a denial of the basic right to vote and should be reversed.

"We ask this court to right a wrong," attorney Walter Carson told McCrone, arguing that the basis for the board's action put an "impermissible burden" on anyone in Maryland trying to petition an issue to referendum.

The citizens group had collected more than 9,000 signatures following the council's November 2008 vote. The county election board first ruled that an initial batch of names passed muster. But before a second group of names could be certified, the board reversed itself and said that not enough names in the first group were valid. The board based its decision on a December 2007 Court of Appeals ruling which found that petition signatures must exactly match names on voting rolls, without any variance. Even the omission of a middle initial invalidates the name on a petition, under the court-approved rules. That doomed the petition drive.

Norman and his allies have since sought to reverse that ruling, arguing that the requirements make it virtually impossible to take a question to referendum, thereby impinging on a citizen's right to vote.

But Gerald M. Richman, the lawyer representing the county election board, argued that Maryland's rules for signatures never changed, and the election board was merely following the law as interpreted by the state's highest court.

"I don't see this as a right-to-vote case. It just isn't," Richman told McCrone.

The judge asked how anyone collecting signatures could know how a person's name appeared on state voter rolls. Richman replied that voter rolls are available to the public, and people who want to sign may check their voting cards.

An attempt to get the General Assembly to change the law last spring failed, and the Maryland election board also adopted the high court's interpretation of the rules, meaning they apply to all petition drives in the state. In Maryland, voters can seek a ballot question only to overturn a government action, not to initiate legislation or rules.

The judge said he'll issue a written opinion, adding that it might "take a while."

A story in Saturday's editions about Howard County residents trying to revive a petition giving voters a say on a proposed Turf Valley supermarket, contained two errors. A time reference to a Maryland Court of Appeals decision regarding referendum petition signatures was incorrect. The ruling came in December 2008. Also, Turf Valley resident Marc Norman was incorrectly linked to earlier, unsuccessful attempts in federal court to revive the petition drive. Norman was not a plaintiff in those lawsuits. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.
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