15 March 2010

Why I won't sign the referendum petition, yet...

I have tried to keep an open mind about the referendum petition to repeal the downtown Columbia zoning legislation.  The “pop-up” group Taxpayers Against Giveaways has taken the lead on the petition signature gathering and state on their website that “Over the next several weeks we will detail how CB-59 grants huge tax windfalls to GGP, relieves GGP of infrastructure obligations typically incurred by other developers, substantially and permanently exacerbates traffic congestion, continues the exemption from State Forest Conservation requirements required of other developers, and fails to provide any environmental sustainability requirements for new construction.”

Well, it hasn’t been several weeks, but it has been more than a few.  So far, no details from the TAGs.  Have they lost steam?  I have no idea.  What I do know is that some of their arguments need some explaining before I can sign their petition, much less vote for a referendum this November.

One thing I believe is that TAG appears to be embellishing their claims. Two things that have stuck out for me has been TAG’s assertion that as a result of passing the legislation, the county “grants GGP a huge tax windfall,” and that the legislation “continues the exemption from State Forest Conservation requirements.” 

Property Tax Windfall?

Absent any concrete details from the TAGs, I started doing some of my own research.  The first claim I researched was the assertion that there is a special tax exemption in Council Bill CB-59.  I looked in the bill and could not find any specific language that provided a tax windfall to GGP.  None was found.  Getting a little frustrated, I searched the TAG website and found a link to a document called “Canvasser Flier.”  I would imagine this is flier intended to be handed out by canvassers as they ask for signatures.  This flier contains a bullet-point that states:

  • Developer not taxed on increased land value for many years (probably decades)

That bullet point helped clear things up a little.  It appears that the TAGs are once again aiming at a state law that allows developers to pay property taxes as if their undeveloped acres were agricultural land.  The actual text of the law can be found in the Maryland Code of Regulations - Maryland Code – Tax-Property – Title 8. Valuation and Assessment – Subtitle 2. Assessment Procedures – Section 8-220.

Now the TAGs said they wanted to put the downtown Columbia zoning bill to a referendum vote this November because of density.  They have been emphatic that the petition drive is about density.  What we find in TAG’s literature are these references to State laws, not county laws.  The State laws deal with property taxes, not density.  To make the connection that passing a county zoning law could in any way affect the state property tax law is misleading and disingenuous.  This is a reason that the TAGs give (in written form) for people to sign the petition.


Simlarly, the TAGs have asserted that the new zoning bill (CB-59) “continues the exemption from State Forest Conservation requirements required of other developers.”  Once again, we go to the Maryland State Code of Regulations (COMAR) to find some answers.  Forest conservation is overseen by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the regulations for administering forest conservation can be found in Maryland Code of Regulations - Maryland Code – Natural Resources – Title 5. Forests and Parks – Subtitle 16. Forest Conservation – Section 5-1601.

Of particular interest of this part of the code is Section 5-1603(c)(3)(ii), which states:

A local forest conservation program, when approved by the Department, may allow clustering and other innovative land use techniques that protect and establish forests where open space is preserved, sensitive areas are protected, and development is physically concentrated. 

In developing their Forest Conservation Manual, the Howard County Government did look into innovative land use techniques used in the county and inserted the following text into the Howard County Forest Conservation Manual.

A planned unit development which has preliminary development plan approval and 50 percent or more of the land is recorded and substantially developed before December 31, 1992;

It is also interesting to note that this same language appears in the Howard County Code

Now the inclusion of the above text is not taken lightly by the Department of Natural Resources.  By law, DNR reviews the Howard County Forest Conservation Manual every two years to ensure forested areas are being preserved.  The last Howard County Forest Conservation Manual revision was June, 7, 1999.  Therefore, DNR has reviewed the document on five separate occasions and has deemed no changes are necessary.

So here we are again.  The County Council passes a zoning bill for downtown Columbia and the TAGs are up in arms about Forestry regulations that were passed in 1992 and have been endorsed (in their current form) by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for almost a decade.  This also seems like piling on and has nothing to do with the density stated in CB-59.

All I’m asking for is some straight talk from TAG.  If you wish to circulate a petition to take a zoning bill to referendum this fall, please do.  But please make a convincing argument that, as you state, the density in the legislation is incorrect.  Make your case, suggest an alternative density, and support your alternative with rigorous facts and models.

Please do not intermingle legacy issues that have no tie to the recently passed legislation.  It cheapens your cause.  Implying that the newly enacted legislation provides a new tax break to GGP is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. How many people have signed this petition thinking that?  How can I sign a petition of someone who misrepresents facts? How do you sleep at night?

Piggybacking a twenty-year old regulation that you think falls short into this petition is equally onerous.  If there is concern about how the Forest Conservation Act is applied, why not advocate for changing the Howard County Forest Conservation Manual?  The number of trees in downtown Columbia and the future density are not directly linked.  Most of the new apartments and condos in downtown will be built on existing parking lots.  And why wasn't TAG out in front of the Forest Conservation Act during the Columbia Village Center legislation?  That legislation amended the same section of the zoning code that CB-59 does, but the Forest Conservation Act was not brought up at all during testimony on that bill.Howard County Forest Conservation Manual.  The number of trees in downtown Columbia and the future density are not directly linked.  Most of the new apartments and condos in downtown will be built on existing parking lots.  And why wasn’t TAG out in front of the Forest Conservation Act during the Columbia Village Center legislation?  That legislation amended the same section of the zoning code that CB-59 does, but yet the Forest Conservation Act was not brought up at all.

TAG it’s time for you to start discussing density and the real reasons you oppose the recently enacted zoning legislation.  Otherwise, your silence on density and the forwarding of arguments unrelated to CB-59 show your group to not be truthful and your petition drive to be less than honorable.


Anonymous said...

If Liz Bobo, an undercover TAG supporter, is a state elected offical, why aren't they asking her to show some leadership and effectiveness and make the changes to the state laws that they want?

wordbones said...


This is exactly why you should post more often. Very nicely done.


PZGURU said...

Bill - the Forest Conservation issue is a VALID point. The exemption that Columbia New Town has is tied into their Preliminary Plan approval occuring long before the 1992 passage of the FC regulations. However, this rezoning application ALTERS, significantly, that initial Preliminary Plan approval, and therefore, it can validly be argued that the Town Center redevelopment plan (not all of Columbia) should be subject to current laws/regulations.

A similar "mistake"/oversight occured when the County extended/revised the Turf Valley plans a few years back. The original TV plans received approval long before APFO (for adequate roads and school capacity) was enacted. When TV significantly altered their original plan, the County should have subjected them to current laws, including APFO.

As for the taxes issue, that doesn't concern me. I have more concern about the plan being approved with failing traffic studies and failing intersections, based on a bogus assertion that people will use public transportation or will walk to places. Never before has such an allowance been given, to take credit for things that are not guaranteeable. What will happen if bus ridership is not what as high as has been guessed? What then?

B. Santos said...


Your point on traffic is worthy of an entirely separate discussion. I hope to put that up sometime soon. With respect to forest conservation, a straightforward movement to change the manual makes sense. To use an important issue like forest conservation as a kitchen sink issue demeans the intent of forest conservation. Save the trees for the sake of saving trees. Do not save the trees as a convenient means of blocking legislation you oppose. That in itself is scandalous.

The same goes for the tax provision. PZ, I have read you on multiple occasions rail against folks that misrepresent and distort. There have even been times when I agreed with you. I would hope that you would stand shoulder to shoulder on this issue and say "hey, if you are misrepresenting or distorting, your wrong."

Anonymous said...

Anon 18:08,

A few years ago, Liz Bobo did introduce legislation to change the tax exemption laws. But as always, she could not convince the general assembly to pass the legislation. Her record of good principles but no results is particularly striking. One has to wonder if anyone else in the GA has a lower bills passed/bills introduced ratio.

Joanne said...


Great analysis! We need much more of this kind of thoughtful input into the quagmire that has been produced by people taking unsubstantiated positions that sound good to the posters. You have just raised the bar for this debate. Thanks.

PZGURU said...

Bill - I do agree with you on that. I don't really get why they would use the tax "argument" when it doesn't seem to be relevant for the most part, and there are other more valid issues that they could latch onto. If they are using that point to dishonestly get people to sign the petition, I condemn that action. I don't know that they are distorting the tax point, but it does seem lame and weak.

As for the referendum drive in general. This most certainly is one of the biggest issues to face Howard County in years, in many years. I would like to have seen the Council, on their own, put this issue to a public vote. By doing so, TAG, or any other "aggrieved" person/group wouldn't have to feel compelled to "hype" the situation as a means to garner the required signatures. If it does make it to a referendum vote, then nobody can say that they didn't have a voice in the process (unless they don't vote, in which case they absolutely have no right to complain later).

As to the Forest Conservation issue, I see your point (about saving trees because it makes sense, not because it's a way to punish someone). However, there is precedent that altered plans are to be treated as "new" applications.

Also related to the FC topic, I did notice that the FC regulations are being updated to reflect some recent State changes. Wrapped silently into that legal update is a provision that allows the County to use forest conservation fee-in-lieu money (that other developers have to pay) for "urban forestry improvements". Since Town Center is the primary/only "urban" place in the County, it would appear that it's possible that other developers that are subject to FC regulations, may see their money go to plant trees and improve Town Center while GGP enjoys a free pass. I definitely say "FOUL" to that if it happens.

Anonymous said...

The reason that Columbia as a whole is exempt from the State Forest Conversation Requirement is that Columbia had a self-imposed 36% requirement for open space which far exceeded any other county development. Downtown Columbia will continue to comply with Columbia’s open space requirement thus exempting it from the state requirement. Additionally the downtown Columbia plan exceeds the State Forest Conservation reforestation requirement by a factor of 10. That is ten times more trees are required to be planted per the downtown Columbia plan than is called for via the State Forest Conservation Requirement.