A group of property owners has sued the Howard County and Maryland boards of elections to thwart a grass-roots challenge of rezoning decisions by the County Council.
The suit, filed Monday in Circuit Court, is the latest episode in a simmering debate about the volume and pace of development in Howard. The suit comes days after Betty L. Nordaas, director of the county Board of Elections, said that a citizen-led petition drive had succeeded in putting a March rezoning bill on the November 2006 ballot for a referendum. As a result of the drive, the rezoning decisions listed in the 91-page bill cannot take effect until the referendum is decided.
Among the suit's 15 plaintiffs are individuals and corporations seeking commercial and residential rezoning for development and a Columbia Baptist church trying to sell rezoned land to help pay for new facilities.
Joseph J. Mezzanotte, the Columbia attorney for the property owners, said the petition did not accurately summarize the lengthy bill's zoning map and text changes affecting scores of properties.
"The local [elections] board did not ensure that the petition complied with the law," he said yesterday. "If it doesn't comply with the law, it should not be disseminated."
Residents behind the petition drive used an 11-year-old provision in the county's charter, which permits a referendum on council bills if at least 5,000 certified signatures of Howard voters are collected. The residents, organized as Citizens for an Open Process for Everyone, complained that some of the bills' rezoning would exacerbate growth pressures and that the council permitted last-minute rezoning requests with little public review.
Nordaas, who said yesterday that she had not seen the lawsuit, said she checked repeatedly with her office's attorney in determining whether the residents' petition drive was properly conducted.
"I can assure you I did everything by law, and I have faith in my counsel," she said. "Never would I have made a decision on my own without consulting with counsel."
Mary Catherine Cochran, an Ellicott City organizer of the petition drive, said she wasn't surprised by the suit.
"We knew that the developers and attorneys and speculators have tons of money tied up in their properties," she said. "We knew it would be challenged in court. That was our expectation."