In the week since three members of the Howard County Council filed a petition to lower the allowable density of the western two-thirds of the county, an unofficial avenue has emerged for defeating the measure. Foes of the petition plan to aim their strategy at one of the council members. Her name is Ruth Keeton.
A group of county farmers and landowners opposed to the change will meet at a fire station in Lisbon tonight to prepare for the planning board's March 9 public hearing on the proposal to limit residential development in the west to one home for every 20 acres. Already, there is talk of a possible lawsuit if the County Council, in its role as the zoning board, approves the petition after its April 12 public hearing.
The three council members said the proposal is designed to save farmland. Under current zoning, the 97,000 acres under consideration are zoned to permit one home for every three acres. But the farmers and landowners say the new zoning would make their land less attractive to developers and prevent them from selling at good prices.
According to council member Charles Feaga, who is organizing the opposition, the bulk of the lobbying before the zoning board's action will be directed at Council Chairman Keeton. Feaga and council member C. Vernon Gray oppose the rezoning, but they need one more vote to defeat it.
Although Keeton cosponsored the proposal with council members Angela Beltram and Shane Pendergrass, she was the last to endorse it and is therefore seen as the "weak link" in the chain of command. Keeton was also the sponsor of a similar proposal that failed four years ago after she was persuaded to vote against it. As the architect of the county's agricultural land preservation program, Keeton is also on a first-name basis with many of the key players in the local farm community.
In addition, Keeton, during her four terms in office, has established a reputation as a politician who loathes confrontation and hates to be conspicuous. At times, her council colleagues have teased her for being a "fence sitter," but Feaga said it is just that quality to which he and other farmers are pinning their hopes.
"She's the swing vote. I'm hoping that Ruth will realize it's a bad bill," he said.
Indeed, Keeton said she was opposed when Beltram first approached her with the idea because she favored a "collective" approach that took into account the views of the landowners who would be most affected by rezoning. Her office was flooded with calls from longtime constituents appealing to her sympathies.
"Ruth does care about people's livelihood . . . and we have to sell her on the idea that we are talking about people's ability to make a living," Feaga said.
The opponents' reasons for not targeting Beltram and Pendergrass have just as much to do with personalities as their reasons for focusing on Keeton.
To anyone familiar with her record as a public activist, Beltram's support of large-lot zoning would not come as a surprise. During the last comprehensive rezoning process, she formed a group whose primary purpose was to advocate such a solution to the county's dwindling supply of farmland, and as a candidate, she promised to make slowing the county's rapid growth one of her top priorities. Beltram has become more adamant in her views as time -- and growth -- has gone on.
Pendergrass, on the other hand, has not been associated primarily with land use issues and has tried, as a council member and zoning board member, to cultivate a reasonable, open-minded image.
But she has made difficult decisions before, most notably voting to fund a low-income housing project in her district in the face of strong opposition from some constituents.
Although she said she would consider all testimony on the subject of rezoning, she added, "I wouldn't propose something like this if I hadn't done a good deal of thinking about it."