Petition signature collectors have hit the streets again in Baltimore County for a referendum effort on development issues — this time targeting a recent County Council bill that would protect a Middle River project from an earlier referendum challenge.
Last month, County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, sponsored and won approval for a bill that would let a Middle River development proceed, even if the zoning is overturned through a pending referendum attempt.
Now, petition workers are asking residents to sign forms to put that legislation on the 2014 ballot as well. If successful, the referendum would let voters decide whether to repeal Bevins' measure.
County Board of Elections members learned of the new referendum at a Thursday meeting, just as election staff is scrambling to count thousands of signatures from the earlier referendum effort. That drive seeks to overturn all zoning votes approved by the County Council during its 2012 zoning review for two specific districts — the 6th District represented by Bevins and the 2nd District represented by Councilwoman Vicki Almond.
A developer, Middle River Station Development LLC, wants to turn the vacant, 65-acre Middle River Depot site along Eastern Boulevard into a mixed-use project with retail, office and residential space, but those plans could be derailed if voters overturn the council's zoning maps.
Stuart Kaplow, a lawyer representing organizations behind both the old and new efforts, said people are opposing Bevins' new bill because it is "a politician's end-around the already pending referendum."
"It's a private law to benefit one property, not a public law, which violates the Maryland Constitution," he said.
Those behind the referendum effort are "a group of Baltimore County businessmen," according to Kaplow, though he said he does not know specifics. They're calling their organization "Let the People Vote," he said.
Kaplow said those involved in the petition drive would be identified in financial disclosure statements that will be filed later. Organizers of the new drive will have to collect more than 28,000 signatures to the put the issue on the ballot. One-third of the signatures are due in early February.
A group financed by firms tied to developers and shopping center owners promoted the initial referendum effort. They hired a petition management company to collect signatures.
Bevins called the new drive "ridiculous" and said it's an example of money influencing politics. She said the community wants to see the Middle River site redeveloped.
"I did what my community wanted me to do," she said.
Meanwhile, county elections staff have been working evenings and weekends to finish counting thousands of signatures seeking the initial referendum. About 20 employees — almost the entire staff — are counting petitions, Deputy Director Rena Waggoner told board members Thursday.
The agency is "severely behind" in other work because of the petitions, she said. "We're overloaded, to say the least."
Officials initially believed that they had to finish counting by mid-January but found that they could wait until Feb. 6 and still meet legal deadlines, board attorney Andrew G. Bailey told members. They also must consider legal arguments filed by opponents of the referendum.