October 18, 2006 Baltimore Sun Article – Suit Aims to Nullify Zoning

Suit aims to nullify zoning

Comp Lite violates state, county laws, 14 residents claim

BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCTOBER 18, 2006

A lawsuit has been filed seeking to nullify the county’s controversial rezoning process last year, commonly referred to as Comp Lite.

The action, filed in Circuit Court, claims that numerous state and county laws were violated.

It is the latest in a series of challenges that Howard County residents have mounted against the rezoning legislation, which was approved on March 7, 2005, by the County Council. Only Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon voted against the measure.

The lawsuit was filed Monday by attorney Katherine L. Taylor on behalf of 14 residents.

“I have been involved in zoning issues for 41 years … and this is the worst process I have ever seen,” said one of the plaintiffs, Angela Beltram, a former member of the Planning Board and County Council and a principal in the opposition against Comp Lite for months. “I think the council just pushed it down our throats.”

Paul T. Johnson, deputy solicitor in the county’s Office of Law, said he could not comment because the county had not yet been served a copy of the complaint.

Officials, however, have said in the past that the county believed Comp Lite was a legal extension of the county’s once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process.

William R. Erskine, an attorney with the firm Reese and Carney, who represents a client whose property was rezoned through Comp Lite, denounced the legal challenge.

“As far as my client is concerned, I don’t think they [the opponents] have a leg to stand on,” he said. “It borders on harassment at this point. They just keep coming back.”

Taylor dismissed the criticism.

“Filing a lawsuit that a lawyer believes to have merit is not harassment. One could say that the property owners and developers who filed a lawsuit challenging the referendum was harassing,” said Taylor, referring to the recent court case that ultimately invalidated a planned ballot measure in the November general election to overturn Comp Lite.

The lawsuit, she said, is the last option available to the opponents.

The lawsuit acknowledges that state law grants the county “broad authority” in rezoning matters, but that it also prohibits the county from engaging “in any activity which is beyond their power.”

It alleges that there was no legal footing for the Comp Lite process, and asks the court to declare the legislation invalid.

The complaint charges that the county violated the state constitution as well as state and county codes in proceeding with the rezoning process and enacting Comp Lite.

Specifically, the complaint alleges that the county erred by:

• Deferring for a year consideration of numerous issues during the normal comprehensive rezoning process of 2004 and inaugurating Comp Lite. “There existed no authority for the council to extend or defer the process, or to later reconsider properties considered during that process,” the lawsuit says.

• Enacting an ordinance granting itself the authority to reconsider the deferred rezoning cases. “The law was not enacted as a process available in future comprehensive rezoning, but was only applicable to the 2004 process,” the lawsuit says.

• Failing to inform the public that the legislation authorizing Comp Lite was “intended to be retroactive” to the 2004 rezoning process.

• Implementing the Comp Lite process and adding to it properties that had not been considered and deferred during 2004.

“Comp Lite in many ways failed to conform to the proper legislative procedures required,” the lawsuit says. ” … While many of the changes were substantive in nature, these proposed changes were not accorded the public input and notice.

” … In short, the legislative process was skirted, resulting in the public being unaware of the changes requested and ultimately approved.”

The lawsuit names the County Council and Planning Board as defendants. Once formally served with the suit, the county will have 30 days in which to file with the court a response.

Taylor said the opponents are not seeking a preliminary injunction against Comp Lite, because that would require more hearings and drag out the case.

“I intend to work with the Office of Law to see if we can agree on a way to streamline the proceedings” to focus on the merits of the case, she said.

Erskine said he would seek to intervene in the case because Comp Lite directly affects his client, Nancy Cavey, by rezoning almost 28 acres at Routes 100 and 103 to permit a mixture of commercial and residential development.

“We will absolutely file the appropriate motion to intervene, because my client is very much a necessary party,” he said.

Beltram said she is optimistic that the court will invalidate Comp Lite. “There is something wrong with that process,” she said. “There were a lot of problem with how it was run.”

Taylor said it could be six to nine months before the court decides the case.