Prominent developers have targeted the districts of two Baltimore County councilwomen with referendum drives to overturn recent zoning votes the developers didn't like.
At a community meeting this month, a Cordish Cos. representative distributed petitions that would put land-use decisions in Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond's and Councilwoman Cathy Bevins' districts on the 2014 ballot, according to people who attended the meeting. And the Committee for Zoning Integrity, which has ties to developer Howard Brown of David S. Brown Enterprises, launched a website promoting the referendum drive.
Both councilwomen say the zoning decisions being questioned — the redevelopment of the Middle River Depot in Bevins' district and of the former Solo Cup property in Almond's — had many residents' support. The councilwomen argue developers are running a disingenuous campaign to protect their own interests.
The Committee for Zoning Integrity's website, fixthemaps.com, says the county's zoning maps paint "a picture of a Baltimore County hijacked by real estate developers and their politico lawyers."
"It's the developer that's passing out the petitions," Bevins said. "They're talking out of both sides of their mouth."
The rezonings were among nearly 300 land-use issues the County Council voted on last month after a yearlong review. While all members of the council vote on each zoning decision, they typically follow the recommendation of the councilperson who represents the district where the zoning petition was filed.
In Almond's district, a battle took place in Owings Mills this year over redeveloping the Solo Cup site on Reisterstown Road, where the firm Greenberg Gibbons won zoning approval to allow for an upscale shopping center called Foundry Row. Developers of two other nearby projects — Brown, who is building Metro Centre, and Kimco Realty, which announced plans to revitalize the Owings Mills Mall — opposed allowing retail zoning at Solo Cup.
In Bevins' case, it's all about Walmart. The retailer, she said, is interested in opening a new store in the vacant, 65-acre Middle River Depot site along Eastern Boulevard where a developer plans to build a mixed-use project with retail, office and residential space.
The depot is about a mile away from the Cordish-owned Carroll Island shopping center, which is home to an older Walmart store that does not offer a full line of groceries. The retailer is expanding or replacing many of its older stores to include extensive grocery departments.
Bevins said a Cordish representative told her it needed to protect its Walmart lease. The Cordish Cos. did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said company head David Cordish is "a very, very wealthy man, and he's one of the biggest developers, not just in the county, but in the state of Maryland. And I said, 'no.' … I was standing up for my community."
A Cordish representative also visited a meeting of the Essex-Middle River Civic Council this month to promote the idea of a referendum, according to people who attended the meeting. A packet distributed at the meeting included petition forms for challenging zoning decisions in both Bevins' and Almond's districts, according to Bevins' senior aide.
"Where does Cordish get the idea that he's speaking for the people of Middle River?" said Bevins, adding that the depot project would be a $210 million investment in her community. "Shame on him."
John Schmidt, zoning chairman for the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association, said many residents want the depot site to be redeveloped because it "has been sitting there as a dinosaur for many, many years.""
According to state records, the Committee for Zoning Integrity filed incorporation papers this month. Its resident agent is listed as Stuart Kaplow, a Towson real estate attorney. He was registered to lobby about the Solo Cup issue during the zoning process for developer Brown.
The committee's website lists Brown's company's general counsel, Lee N. Sachs, in its copyright message.
Kaplow and Sachs didn't return messages seeking comment. A spokesman for Brown declined to comment on whether Brown is involved in the referendum effort.
Supporters of the referendum would have to gather more than 28,000 signatures to put the issues on the 2014 ballot. They would have to get at least a third of those by Oct. 15 and would then have 30 more days to collect signatures, county election director Katie Brown said.
The county has never seen a referendum drive to overturn zoning decisions, and it's unclear what would happen to other zoning issues in the councilwomen's districts if the referendum drives were successful.
"I'm loath to predict what would happen," County Attorney Mike Field said.
But Almond and Bevins say they fear that if supporters of the referendum gathered enough signatures, it would put other redevelopment projects in their districts in limbo for two years.
"It's the community that will suffer," said Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat.
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