Behind black curtains drawn across an unmarked storefront at White Marsh Mall, workers in red shirts prepare for a day of gathering signatures for a petition opposing a proposed outlet mall a few miles away.
The workers' shirts read "Protect the Process, Ask Me How," and the petition would put a new Baltimore County zoning law that benefits the outlet mall on the ballot in an effort to overturn it.
They work for the Committee to Protect Baltimore County Zoning Process, which opposes a plan by Baltimore-based Paragon Outlet Partners to build a 100-store outlet mall across Interstate 95 from White Marsh Mall and The Avenue at White Marsh.
If the petitioners collect 26,414 signatures from registered county voters, then the zoning law will go on the 2016 ballot for voters to uphold or defeat.
Officials for General Growth Properties, owners of White Marsh Mall, have declined to comment on whether they are behind the petition — though the storefront headquarters of the drive is in the mall, a signature collection table is set up in the mall food court and pro-petition postcards mailed to residents carry the return address of Towson Town Center, another mall owned by General Growth.
An attorney for the committee also declined requests for comment, and a man at the storefront who identified himself as a manager declined to comment Monday.
The petition is the latest battle in the fight over the outlet mall — a proposal that's been tied up for more than a year in appeals brought by White Marsh Mall, which argued the outlets would unfairly undercut its business, as well as neighbors concerned about traffic and stormwater management.
Last month, the Baltimore County Council approved a bill allowing property owners along Interstate 95 who meet zoning and acreage requirements to build an outlet mall as a matter of right, without submitting plans for extra layers of zoning approval. The measure was approved unanimously — a move that quashed the opponents' appeal.
Fliers and mailers circulated by the Committee to Protect Baltimore County Zoning Process make no mention of the outlet mall, but state the new law "changes countywide zoning rules to benefit one development project" and gives developers "more say than the community."
Meanwhile, proponents of the outlet mall are ramping up as well, using robocalls to discourage residents from signing the petition. Paragon has made phone calls to "a large portion of the county" and plans a mail campaign starting this week, said R. Kelvin Antill, a partner in the company.
Residents across the county — including Catonsville, Owings Mills, Towson, Cockeysville, Phoenix and Dundalk — have reported being contacted by one or both sides.
Antill said his company's robocalls and mailers focus on the benefits of the project, which he said include jobs and an economic boost to the region. He noted that the outlet mall's opponents make no mention the bill is really about his firm's project.
"I'm sure they know everyone would look down on an anti-competition play," Antill said, "so they're trying to avoid that, I assume."
Antill said he's continuing to work on the project, seeking approvals from state highway officials and "cranking up" to apply for county permits.