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Political Notebook: Council considers ballot questions, General Plan changes

How many questions should the County Council put on the ballot this November?

"I think you said 10 questions, which immediately scared me," Howard County Board of Elections Director Guy Mickley said to the council during its work session Monday, July 23. "I would recommend anywhere from two to four, the max five."

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The council has before them 10 resolutions proposing changes to the Howard County Charter. Charter amendments need voter approval before they can take effect.

Mickley advised that the council limit their selections for the ballot, as too many questions would cause voter fatigue and likely extend the paper absentee and provisional ballots to two pages, increasing printing costs for the county.

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The charter amendments under consideration include:

• a proposal by council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, to raise the number of four-year terms council members can serve from three to four;

• a proposal by council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, to limit contingency funds for each separate operating fund in the budget to 3 percent (the 3-percent rule already applies to total general fund revenues, but Fox is aiming to have the 3 percent apply separately to the fire tax revenues, since they are put into their own fund); and

• a proposal by the Charter Review Commission to tweak the county's referendum requirement to 5 percent of Howard residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election, instead of 5 percent of registered voters, and to remove the 5,000 maximum on signatures that need to be collected.

The Howard County ballot will be shorter this November than for the 2010 elections because there are fewer local races during a presidential election year than a gubernatorial election year. However, this election has more statewide referendum questions than in recent memory.

The state Board of Elections already has approved three referendum petitions. All three are expected to be placed on the ballot this November: one to block the legalization of same-sex marriage, one to repeal the law allowing certain undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition and one to reject the Congressional redistricting map state Democrats approved during a special session last fall.

On the ballot, the races — president, U.S. Senate, U.S. Congressional representative, circuit court judge and Board of Education — would come first, followed by the state referendum questions and the local charter questions.

"The more things you put on the ballot, as you get to the back of the ballot, people are not going to vote on it," Mickley said.

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He did note that the council has the option of placing some questions on the 2014 ballot.

The council is scheduled to vote on the charter amendments Thursday, July 26, at 4:30 p.m. in the George Howard Building.

General Plan amendments

On Thursday the council is also scheduled to vote on the once-a-decade update to the General Plan, the policy document that guides land use and development in the county.

The council, during its July 23 work session, discussed roughly 80 possible amendments to the plan, called PlanHoward 2030. Many of the amendments, which have been consolidated, are wordsmith changes aimed at ensuring the intent of the various policies outlined in the document are clear.

"So many of them were fairly small but when taken in conjunction with each other ... add emphasis on things," council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said.

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Among the areas the council is trying to emphasize, she said, are transportation and accommodating persons with disabilities.

Emphasis and intent are important, as the General Plan serves as a tool for attorneys arguing zoning cases, county officials crafting planning and zoning policies and developers looking to build or revitalize communities. The council will also use the plan as a guide as it goes through the comprehensive rezoning process, which is expected to begin this fall.

In addition, the council has prepared a few that make more substantial changes.

One amendment, submitted by Ball, would remove the growth tier designations from the plan.

A state law proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and passed by the General Assembly this spring requires local jurisdictions to designate their land into four growth tiers, with properties designated as Tier IV banned from having septic systems in new major residential subdivisions. The law has caused a lot of controversy in Howard County, where the administration has proposed designating the entire rural conservation zoning district as Tier IV.

Removing the tiers from the plan buys the council more time to come up with alternative solutions before the state's Dec. 31 deadline.

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"It's an important issue," Ball said. "I think it requires more thought. I'd like to see more citizens weigh in and I'd like to hear an expanded discussion from the Department of Planning and Zoning on the issue."

Sigaty noted amendments that call for a review of the county's adequate public facilities ordinance and the new town zoning regulations for Columbia.

Other amendments address the relationships with the county's major commercial areas — the Route 1 and Route 40 corridors, the Snowden River Parkway area, the Columbia village centers and downtown Columbia.

"We're all trying to represent the folks who've spoken to us and the important things we see in our districts and fit those in," Sigaty said, adding "our goal is to do a consensus document, which I think we've done."

(Go to explorehoward.com to see how the County Council voted.)


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