Thursday, February 26, 2009

Citizens Sue County, Ulman About Land Use Decisions

This story is a little dated, but I wanted to take my time in thinking about it before I decided to make a post about it. The short of it is that Susan Gray, an attorney who has been involved in multiple land-use lawsuits in Howard County, is now the attorney for a multi-party, class action lawsuit against the County and several of its representatives.

Larry Carson reported in the Sun two days ago about it:
A group of development-wary residents have filed a lawsuit against Howard County that claims the government's process of making land-use decisions illegally denies citizens the right to challenge them by referendum.

The suit alleges that the county has violated the county charter for years by making land-use decisions via County Council resolutions and administrative decisions instead of by bill or ordinance. The practice, according to attorney Susan B. Gray and several independent plaintiffs, denies citizens the ability to petition decisions to referendum because only bills can go to voters.

The suit, filed Feb. 17 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, asks authorities to declare a series of Howard laws void, seeks federal supervision of county land-use decisions and requests $10 million in damages.
Among those involved are Frank Martin and Paul Kendall - critics of Turf Valley expansion plans. Philip Rousseau is also involved and was a part of the series of Wegmans lawsuits. That doesn't change how you should view the filing, but it is good to know who is involved.

It's likely that this lawsuit will go nowhere fast. The County is already calling it frivolous. I won't go that far with my comment, but this lawsuit presents moral hazard to me.

The citizens are seeking $10 million and a repeal of all land use decisions in the last three years. They want federal supervision of land-use decisions in the hopes that they could contest any land-use decision and take it to referendum, a la Council Bill 58.

They wouldn't get the money. That's frivolous and not worth discussing. The two critical points are calling for federal supervision of land-use decisions and a reversal of land-use decisions of the last three years. They won't get the latter. So, the thing to focus on is calling for federal supervision of land-use decisions.

This is an interesting claim. It is interesting because many like-minded folks to those behind this suit were up in arms when Executive Ulman sought to move soil conservation decisions to DPZ from Howard Soil Conservation District.

That, and the lawsuit claims, seem to represent a distrust of County officials in anything pertaining to land use. In that case, then, why should the County Council or Planning Board or any County entity be able to make final, binding land-use decisions? If the litigants of the lawsuit want the opportunity to contest any land-use decision, then hypothetically, every land-use decision should be put to referendum. There should be no filter for selective decisions to which a party should not be able to vote.

My question for those behind the suit, or that support it, would be what their ultimate goal is. Is it to have every land-use decision put in the hands of voters and run like a campaign? Is it something else?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Columbia Blog

Towson University Journalism student Jack Cole has started a blog about Columbia, its people, and its institutions. He covers some very interesting topics and people, and it's well worth your time to check it out.

If you ever wanted to know anything about the Columbia bike guy, you can at Jack's blog.

Bobo, Democrats Go Back on Their Own Tax Vote

The Columbia Flier has the news that a tax bill that Republicans in HoCo's state delegation thought was ok'd by majority Democrats was "reconsidered" and subsequently voted down.

State legislators today reconsidered and rejected a bill they had approved the previous week, sparking accusations from one delegate of partisan retribution.

State Del. Gail Bates, a West Friendship Republican, said the bill, which would have granted some county residents a property tax credit, was rejected today at the delegation meeting as “payback” for the withdrawal of a soil conservation bill favored by Democrats.

“Someone was mad because the soil conservation bill went down,” Bates said.

Bates said she believes that “someone” is County Executive Kenneth Ulman, who, she said, specifically requested the reconsideration.
We don't know if it's Ulman, or even if the accusation is true. Still, it seems awfully fishy to reconsider a bill that seemingly was already done.

Among those that changed their minds was Delegate Liz Bobo. Her explanation? Hilarious.
“I did not vote (on Feb. 11) the way I intended to,” she said. “I thought we were voting on the soil conservation bill. That’s not responsible of me, but it’s the truth.”
You gotta be kidding me. Then Delegate Bobo is basically admitting to any of a few things: (1) a lack of awareness about the bill on which she was voting, (2) a lack of reading comprehension, or the most likely (3) she's issuing payback and needed an excuse for the media. Pitiful.

The party line coming from the Dems is that approving the tax credit would set a "dangerous precedent" to credit taxpayers for services that they don't use. What's dangerous about that?

And preemptively, I will ask to not bring up paying for public schools because I will likely agree with you that paying into that service provides a community benefit of some kind to people that don't necessarily use the schools.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

HoCo Delegation OKs Speed Cameras

I hate speed and red light cameras. I think they do worse for public safety than good. Study after study, and jurisdiction and jurisdiction are moving away from these cameras due to hard data that shows intersections and areas with these cameras become more accident-prone than before they were installed. Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that people in Montgomery County - already living with these ridiculous money making cameras - just slow down in the places where there are cameras, and then speed up once they are out of sight. This causes an inconsistent speed and flow to traffic, which is worse for traffic and safety.

Despite all of that evidence, the Democratic state delegation approved a bill that would allow speed camera use in the County. They voted along party lines - 6 Democrats to 3 Republicans.

Sen. Edward Kasemeyer has this convenient excuse for ok-ing the cameras.

"Fundamentally, the issue is about speed," state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer said. "If you don't speed, you won't have to worry about the cameras."

Awesome. That sounds like what we heard from the Bush Administration when we had our uproar about warrantless wiretaps and scanning machines at airports that were effectively x-ray machines for humans. "If you have nothing to hide, you don't have to worry about it."

Sen. Kasemeyer's claim is preposterous and aims to circumvent due process and other moral problems with this approach.

Out of Hand CB58 Lawsuits

Ok, this is getting ridiculous on both sides. Marc Norman is claiming that he has submitting over 9000 signatures to be reviewed by the Board of Elections. Norman is hoping that the BoE will validate at least 5000 of those and put CB58 on the ballot as a referendum for 2010. Fine.

Now, we have Greenburg Gibbons that is trying to halt the process in court with two separate filings.
Greenberg Gibbons, meanwhile, has filed two court challenges, one calling for a judge to review approval by the Board of Elections of the form of the referendum petitions, the other claiming the signature gathering process violated state and local laws.
So, Gibbons's challenge was met with response from Norman's group, HCCO.

In court papers, the group argues Greenberg Gibbons does not have standing to challenge the board of election's decision.

Under the law, the company and its CEO Brian Gibbons do not qualify as "aggrieved parties" who can challenge the Board of Election's decision approving the format of the petitions, the court papers state. Greenberg Gibbons also failed to give any specifics about how the referendum petitions might have been flawed.

If you'll remember the WCI Condominiums controversy, as Doug Miller does, then you'll see the irony of trying to use the standing debate against the developer.

I'm on record as saying if Norman and his group can get 5000 verified signatures, then we're having a referendum. It is up to the BoE to determine if that happened or not, and if the signatures were gathered in a legal fashion. Do we really need to clog the courts with lawsuits that presume the Board of Elections is incompetent? Do we need lawsuits with no specific claims of aggrievement that challenge the system? No. Let the BoE do its work.

A Different Response to My Letter to the Editor

Today, I saw a reply from a detractor of mine in the Howard County Times regarding my letter the responded to Angela Beltram's response to my letter. This chain is getting awfully long. Anyway, here's Mona's letter:

Two recent letters by the same person [Editor's note: me] convey a misunderstanding of reality and history regarding land-use issues.

When politicians predictably decide in favor of those with extraordinary connections at the expense of citizen taxpayers, the only option residents have (barring spending $1 million to match an incumbent's campaign war chest at election time), the only right we can rely on is that of sending the matter to the voters in the county, i.e., referendum.

What Angela Beltram (in much more detail and gently) said is that county citizens have already tried using the comprehensive planning as the guide.

Nice idea, but in practice it has a) been defeated as an enforceable plan in a Maryland court and b) been circumvented by powerful people with extraordinary connections to our representatives beyond what most taxpayers enjoy.

Those who learn by not repeating mistakes realize that recent history in Howard County supports the claim that residents lack rights rather than lobby, buy votes, exert excessive influence, or step over the line of misrepresentation. We have very little power compared with the most active and moneyed county lobby, and the notion that we should somehow find a basis to decrease our rights by forgoing the right to referendum might be the call that organizes sufficient citizenry to vote out a few offenders.

Mona has been missing the point of both of my letters. Let me be clear - I DO NOT want to suppress or ask anyone to give up their right to take CB58 to referendum. I don't know how many times I can say it, but I will until it sticks.

Rather, I have said that the referendum will not be the be-all-end-all instrument to get better land-use practices in the County. Even if victorious, it would be on in the ongoing, never ending series of battles that land-use challengers would have to fight. Since those have a spotty track record in favor of Mona, Angela, and others, the long-term implications of this win would likely be small for land use. It is up to them if they would like to keep up this approach, but it doesn't seem to be working too well in the grand scheme.

County Council elections do not cost $1 million. Mary Kay Sigaty raised slightly more than $25,000 to run her campaign from 2002 through 2006. Even the County Executive race doesn't require a million dollar war chest. According to the Baltimore Sun, sitting County Executive Ken Ulman only raised approximately $750,000 for his successful run to his seat four years ago.

Also, running a campaign for the referendum is effectively like running a campaign for a candidate. You still need money, resources, time, and effort as you would with helping a candidate get elected. Logic would say that if you could find, support, and elect a candidate - or several - that stand up for land-use in the County, then you would get more bang for your buck that way.

People can't just throw up their hands and give up by citing that rich people have all of the influence. That's a lie. There are two very distinct ways to change policy, candidates, process, etc. Yes, one is money. Political contributions are an investment in a candidate with an expected return. But, the other is equally as powerful. That is the power of organized voices. Two wonderful examples of powerful, sizable national lobbies are AAA and AARP. Thanks to membership drives that provide benefits to their members, both organizations boast member rolls that make their organizations powerful lobbies. They can bring about political change through action alerts or advocacy.

We can do the same thing in Howard County. We should do the same thing in Howard County. The HCCA tries to do that very valiantly. It's not quite large enough to be that influential, but HCCA is very vocal and visible. Growing that organization or one like it would prove helpful in the land-use struggle.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

CA Devising Its Own Vision for Symphony Woods

GGP has made suggestions for what it would do with the Symphony Woods lands as part of its ZRA 113 application. The problem for all involved is that GGP doesn't own the land. The Columbia Association does and it is up to them to do anything or nothing with the land.

GGP's development suggestions have been used against them by critics of their ZRA and GPA. They never should have made them in the first place. I think CA realizes this and is now setting out to see what - if anything - they want to do with the land.

Paumier, a Columbia resident, and his team plan to present some initial ideas to the board in late February and outline several different options for the woods in late March, he said. The public will be able to offer opinions on the various plans, said CA board Chairman Tom O'Connor.

The board has several "desired outcomes" for Symphony Woods, O'Connor said, including restoring the ecosystem, giving the community a gathering place, limiting new roads and buildings, and connecting the woods to the rest of downtown.

While the board has not taken a formal position on General Growth's ideas for Symphony Woods, O'Connor said the company's proposal to build two new cultural buildings in the woods is unpopular with board members.

Among the ideas mentioned were adding an ice skating rink that could convert into a dance center in the summer, improving walking paths and converting portions of the woods into gardens.

Paumier, who is not being paid for his work with CA, said both he and General Growth officials want to see more people use the park but differ on how to reach that goal. He said he does not like the idea of adding large new buildings and underground parking, and is thinking of lower-impact designs.

I'm a big advocate for preserving the rights of landowners. This includes letting CA go through its own process to decide what it wants to do with Symphony Woods. They should not acquiesce to any pressure from GGP on the subject.

Howard County Times Weighs In on Route 40

With letters from several sources on the subject of Council Bill 58, Route 40 Corridor planning, and comprehensive commercial land use planning in the County, the Howard County Times has weighed in on the subject.
[T]he two (recommendations made by the 21 person Route 40 Corridor planning working group) that are arguably the most crucial -- implementing change through comprehensive zoning and the completion of the design manual that will guide development -- aren't done yet. The task force identified both as short-term (i.e. less than two years from the issuance of the recommendations) objectives.

As critical as the timely redevelopment of Columbia's Town Center is to the county's future, it remains a long-term proposition, with much remaining to be hashed out before real progress on that front can be realized.

Officials must not forget the county's other economic center and should work to regain the momentum the task force established four years ago.

This is something that anyone for the CB58 referendum and I can agree to and fight for now.