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County zoning fight heads into OT

A bitter fight over recent zoning decisions has spilled into the streets of Baltimore County as out-of-state petition-management teams hired by wealthy developers have set out to acquire nearly 58,000 signatures for a possible 2014 ballot referendum.

The dispute began last year after plans were announced for a new shopping center in Owings Mills to be called Foundry Row and anchored by a Wegmans. The development gained zoning approval from the Baltimore County Council on Aug. 28.

Then, observers say, the real fireworks began.

Two developers, Howard Brown and David Cordish, recently hired signature-gathering companies from out of state and are paying $5 per signature to gather names on two petitions, County Council officials say.

The goal is to send the newly minted 2nd District and 6th District zoning maps to referendum in 2014, freezing any decisions they hold for two years. The 2nd District holds the rezoned Foundry Row site, near Brown’s under-construction Metro Centre project, and the 6th District holds new zoning for a mega-development in Middle River, which would compete with a smaller shopping center owned by Cordish nearby.

The canvassers must gather a total of about 19,000 signatures by Oct. 12 — and then an additional 38,000 signatures by mid-November.

“If this shouldn’t be scrutinized, what should be,” Brown said. “People are entitled to have a voice in this.”

But Brian Gibbons, president of Greenberg Gibbons and developer of Foundry Row, said the petition drives are threatening his project because they ultimately could snag his attempts to gain financing.

“It’s possible we’ll be delayed,” Gibbons said of his $140 million development to be located in the former Solo Cup plant on Reisterstown Road. “It could significantly delay us. It’s unprecedented, to say the least.”

Gibbons said his company has hired its own out-of-state ballot experts, Petition Partners from Phoenix, to help counter the Brown and Cordish petition canvassers by passing out a slick flyer that states: “Keep Progress Moving in Owings Mills!” and “Think twice before signing this petition!” with a copy of the petition.

“Don’t let them hijack the zoning process against the community’s wishes,” the flyer said. “Don’t let them stop progress in Owings Mills because they fear competition!”

Gibbons said of Brown, his nemesis in Owings Mills: “This is all just more shenanigans and fabrication. Brown is trying to undermine the process.”

Prior to the Aug. 28 zoning vote, Brown backed a “Say No to Solo Coalition” petition drive. Gibbons, who has hired a local public relations firm to help with his effort, sponsored a Facebook page for the Foundry Row development that received more than 3,400 “likes.”

A legislative aid in the office of County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said an out-of-state canvasser was thrown off the property of the Parkville post office last week after he tried to get signatures inside the building.

The workers have been sent to the Baltimore area from multiple states. They are trained in petition signature management and are being paid $5 per signature, said a County Council official.

“They are out there all over the county,” said J.B. Osborne, senior legislative advisor to Bevins. “The folks getting the signatures first instruction is to ask if you are a Baltimore County voter, and even if not, they tell them it’s coming to their neighborhood. There’s some misinformation out there. God only knows what’s going to happen if they get their signatures.”

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has been monitoring the situation, Chief of Staff Donald I. Mohler III said Tuesday.

“We are aware of it, and like all other folks in Baltimore County are observers,” Mohler said, adding Kamenetz had distanced himself from the zoning fights because he believed it was a council task.

“We have tried to stay at arm’s length and not get involved,” he said.

Bevins said Tuesday that Cordish, who also owns the Maryland Live Casino at Arundel Mills mall in Anne Arundel County, among other developments, did not raise any questions over the new zoning of a 65-acre former industrial site located at Eastern Boulevard and Route 43 during public hearings that were held before the vote. She said developers hope to build a $210 million mixed-used project there, using the historic plant as a base.

“I say you should invest a fraction of the money you’ve spent in fighting stuff in your shopping center,” Bevins said of Cordish’s Carroll Island Shopping Center, anchored by a Walmart.

Cordish did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The 2nd District councilwoman, Vicki Almond, also was unavailable for comment.

But Bevins said the petition drive fight is getting more antagonistic as the clock ticks.

“It’s just wealthy, powerful men behaving badly,” she said.