A plan by the City of New Carrollton to annex the Metro triangle and two neighboring residential communities received a boost last week when Mayor Jordan Harding accepted a petition from West Lanham and West Lanham Hills residents asking that those areas be annexed.
Progress on the hotly contested annexation had been at a standstill for about six weeks, while city officials waited for the petition. During those six weeks, business interests in Metro East, where a multimillion-dollar industrial, commercial and hotel complex is under development, have showered city hall with letters of protest.
On Monday, three Metro East property owners, a New Carrollton resident and a West Lanham resident filed a lawsuit opposing the annexation. The suit alleges that the city violated Maryland's sunshine law, which requires openness in government, according to attorneys Edward Gibbs.
The plaintiffs claim that the mayor and council made decisions on the proposed annexation at clandestine meetings "in such a manner as to keep their activities and interests in secret from the public." They also charge that the city falsely labeled as "legal fees" $11,000 which actually was paid for a survey of the land proposed for annexation.
Mayor Harding called the suit "a brazen and openly hostile attempt to discredit and impugn the motives of the city administration regarding the annexation question by unscrupulous attacks and frivolous charges."
He claimed that provisions of the sunshine law allowed city officials to delay public information on the proposed annexation until all facts and figures were compiled.
"Talk of annexation could trigger all kinds of zoning actions, and we didn't want to get word out when we didn't know all the ramifications," said Harding, who noted that all council meetings are open to the public. "I invite and encourage the most exacting public scrutiny of city business."
Despite the business opposition, Harding said he was delighted to receive the citizens' petition. He saluted the "spirit of two communities joining together" and denied charges that the city wants annexation primarily to cash in on revenue expected from the tax-rich Metro East. Once the Metro East complex is completed and assuming the annexation is approved, New Carrollion could expect to receive a total of about $274,00 a year in taxes from business there. Tax revenues from West Lanham and West Lanham Hills would total about $26,000 a year.
"Since Metro will obviously have a fantastic impact on what happens in New Carrollton anand West Lanham Hills, we might as well be under one umbrella," said Harding. "While it's true we're not going to turn the money down, we want to have some say on what happens there."
Theis week the city expects to certify the petition to make sure it contains the required number of valid signatures. Signatures of 25 percent of the 492 registered voters in the areas to be annexed, plus signatures of private property owners representing 25 percent of the assessed value of the property are required. The total value of taxable property in the area proposed for annexation is $11,435,997.
The petition surpasses the requirements, according to Bronson Row, president of the West Lanham Hills Citizen's Association. Row, who led the petition drive, said the petition contains signatures of 37 percent of the registered voters and signatures from 195 of the 282 homeowners in the area.
"I'm elated because it wasn't a simple thing like most petitions that need just registered voters' signatures," grinned Row, as he clutched the battered manila envelope containing 111 pages of petition.
After the petition is certified, the New Carrollton City Council is expected to introduce a resolution stating that the city wants to annex the adjacent land. The council then will schedule required public hearings on the resolution. The hearings probably will begin in mid-November.
The City Council has authorized an advisory referendum on the annexation, which would be held after the public hearings. However, under the city charter, the council would not be required to act in accordance with the results of such an advisory referendum.
To force a binding referendum on the question, New Carrolton resident Joseph Aukward had been leading a "citizen's initiative" petition drive.
Aukward, who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city, said he has more than the 206 signatures required and plans to present his petition after the pro-annexation petition is certified.
The result could be that voters would find two referendums on the ballot, one advisory and one binding. However, Harding, who signed Aukward's petition, said he would favor dropping the advisory referendum in favor of the binding referendum.
If the citizen's initiative referendum shows the residents favor annexation, the council would be required to affirm this by voting to annex the area. If this referendum shows residents opposed, the annexation proposal would be dropped.
If annexation is approved, another complex legal procedure would give the residents of New Corrollton or the areas to be annexed 45 days to file petitions calling for another referendum. West Lanham resident Carole Tarbox, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against New Carrollton, said she has a completed petition signed by residents in the area to be annexed that would bring the matter to referendum in that area. If the citizens vote against annexation, a council vote to annex would be declared void.
Jimmy Rogers, a broker for Metro East who owns property near the development project and has been leading the business interests' fight against annexation, has been the central figure in filing the lawsuit against New Carrollton.
"Prince George's County says they're trying to promote industrial development, but business don't go someplace where they're going to get tax grab," said Rogers, who claims New Carrollton is offering nothing in exchange for the business' tax dollars.