Judge allows release of petitions in Balto. Co. zoning referendum drive

A Baltimore County judge allowed the release Wednesday of the names of people who signed petitions to challenge the county's zoning maps, saying the information is "clearly a public record."

In the latest turn in a battle between developers, Circuit Judge Kathleen Cox ruled that the county board of elections should make the documents public. Referendum opponents asked for the names because they want to lay the framework for a legal challenge to the petition filings.

Several development firms are funding the referendum drive while others whose projects depend on the new zoning are fighting the effort. The hearing Wednesday focused on allegations that petition "blockers" harassed and intimidated people who were collecting signatures to challenge the County Council's land-use decisions this year.

The referendum drive would put all zoning decisions in County Chairwoman Vicki Almond's and Councilwoman Cathy Bevins' districts on the ballot in 2014. Almond's district includes the communities of Pikesville, Owings Mills, and Reisterstown. Bevins represents areas including Middle River and Essex.

Lawyers for developers Greenberg Gibbons and Middle River Station Development LLC, as well as two community activists, filed Public Information Act requests seeking copies of the petitions. They want to examine the documents because they allege signature collectors misrepresented the purpose of the petitions.

But lawyers for committees funded by developers promoting the referendum asked the courts to temporarily block release of the names until the signatures are verified by the county elections board. The lawyers argued that releasing the names would have a "chilling effect" on signature gathering and said the safety of petition circulators is at risk.

"There is a great deal of vitriol," said Stuart Kaplow, one of the lawyers. "There is a great deal of contention throughout the county."

Referendum supporters have gathered about 125,000 signatures — more than what is required to put the issue on the ballot — and plan to continue their efforts through mid-November, Kaplow told the judge. The county elections board is not expected to finish verifying signatures until December, he said.

The referendum effort is funded by developers the Cordish Cos. and Howard Brown of David S. Brown Enterprises, as well as owners of the Garrison Forest Plaza and Green Spring Station shopping centers.

The committees had hired a company called National Ballot Access, which employs people to gather signatures. Greenberg Gibbons, which plans to build the Foundry Row shopping center at the former Solo Cup property in Owings Mills, also hired a firm called Petition Partners to distribute literature against the referendum.

In court papers, the referendum proponents allege that on Oct. 15 at the Cockeysville library, a 55-year-old woman gathering signatures was approached by three "blockers" wearing presidential Halloween masks.

The woman, who lives in Arizona, said in court papers that a man wearing a Ronald Reagan mask harassed, spat on, punched and shoved her. No one was charged by police in the incident.

In addition to the alleged library disturbance, incidents occurred at a Party City and a Kmart in which "blockers" told people that the signature gatherers were "pedophiles," Kaplow said.

Cox called any violence related to the petitions "deplorable" but said she did not see how withholding the names would protect the people gathering new signatures.

"I don't see the nexus between the request that's being made and the harm that's being alleged," she said.

Lawyers for the referendum opponents said they need to start contacting residents who signed the petitions.

"We've had wholescale fraud in this case among signature collectors," said attorney Timothy Maloney, who represents Middle River Station Development LLC, which wants to turn the vacant Middle River Depot into a mixed-use project.

He added that some signature collectors told citizens the petitions dealt with eminent domain and the county school board.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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