A group of county residents, determined to undo rezoning actions on more than 100 properties, is taking its cause and clipboards to supermarkets, libraries, parks, churches and schools.
The petitioners have a little more than five weeks to gather thousands of signatures from Howard County voters, and they know the process must be, in the words of organizer Angela Beltram, "absolutely, technically correct" if they are to succeed in reversing months of work by the County Council, the Planning Board and county staff.
"The process was horrendous. It was a very closed process," Beltram told about 80 residents gathered last week at the Ellicott City Senior Center. Some were there because they fought the council's rezoning for Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church just west of Ellicott City. Others were unhappy with the rezoning of residential property to business use along Frederick Road near Cemetery Lane.
"This is a chance to tell the folks in power to take a step back and look at this," said Mary Catherine Cochran, an activist and president of Preservation Howard County. "We are at the crossroads."
On March 7, the council approved a bill containing 31 amendments to the Howard zoning map, concluding a two-year process of comprehensive rezoning during which land use throughout the county was examined. The amendments, affecting about 116 parcels, permit high-density residential zoning along the Route 1 corridor, create new mixed-use areas in the Route 40 corridor and convert some residential property to commercial use, among other changes.
Critics contend that council members, with little review, proposed and approved last-minute, controversial rezonings at the request of property owners. The bill, signed by County Executive James N. Robey (D), will take effect May 10 unless opponents gather enough valid signatures to place the bill before voters in the 2006 general election. If that happens, properties listed in the bill will retain their current zoning until the referendum.
Organizers, who call themselves Citizens for an Open Process, received advice on how to garner the required 5,000 valid voter signatures.
"Don't argue with anybody," said Pat Dornan, founder of the Howard County Taxpayers Association. "Always have two clipboards and a partner. You don't want people to wait to sign a petition."
Dornan led a petition drive two years ago that challenged the council's vote to increase taxes. He gathered 7,000 signatures in 29 days, but officials said the county charter did not permit a referendum on budget decisions. The charter does allow council legislation to be challenged, said Paul T. Johnson, the county's deputy solicitor.
Even if the petition drive is successful this spring, the outcome of a 2006 referendum is unclear, said Beltram, who served on the County Council from 1986 to 1990. "We will need a lot of money because there will be developers and lawyers opposing this question," she said.
Residents in the St. Johns Lane neighborhood are participating in the petition drive, but they're also negotiating with representatives of Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church, which obtained a controversial rezoning for a planned 90,000-square-foot expansion on its 28 acres. Council members urged residents to seek restrictive covenants governing the church's construction of a center for worship, education and social service activities.
Covenants "were never our first choice," said Patricia Casal, who lives near the church. She said that she and other residents fear they would bear the obligation and expense of enforcing the covenants.
Even if church leaders agree to all the neighbors' proposed covenants, she said, "we're going ahead with the referendum."