Tuesday, January 31, 2006


I think I have the bird flu. Really, I do. I've been miserable for days; medications aren't working any longer; and there's no end in sight.

Okay, maybe I don't have the bird flu, but what I do have is preventing me from attaining my normal level of lucidity--not a very high target.

Anyway, I wanted to comment on a few things before I lose consciousness again. First, HoCo Blog has posted the income distribution for Howard County from the 2000 census. He points out that our $74,000 median income is not really reflective of the entire population and that the data fail to show the breakdown of county workers--teachers, firefighters, police--many of whom surely must go outside the county for their housing needs. He's right on both points, but looking at our county's income profile for only one year doesn't really show us anything we don't know.

We know that median household income and median housing costs are completely out of whack. Indeed, median household income in 2004 was $82,000 and median household value was $347,000, four times greater than income.

However, more important than showing us that there is a problem is showing us what the impacts of this problem are. For instance, are people actually leaving Howard County in non-trivial numbers because of housing costs. Anecdotally, yes, but do we have any way to prove it. And, if we do, what does this mean for the community and our economy?

While I can't really answer these questions now, I can show you a graph I made a few weeks ago using 2000 and 2004 Census data.

From the graph, you can see that in general, our residency is becoming more concentrated in the higher income brackets, suggesting to some extent that we are becoming wealthier (or that lower income households are losing ground in the county). I don't really have the analytical wherewithal to go much further down this train of thought, but I figured I would at least put it out there.

On a related note, the Sun today reported on the eviction of the final holdouts from the Ev-Mar Mobile Home Park in Savage.

After years of bitter wrangling and months of court hearings, the tiny Ev-Mar Mobile Home Park in Savage was emptied of its last residents yesterday, as Cpl. David M. Miller, a Howard County sheriff's deputy, stood by.

Amid tears and last-minute packing, residents of four of the older mobile homes emptied their belongings into trucks as crews representing the owners of the 6.8-acre site on Gorman Road near Savage Mill began preparing to demolish the six older trailers and haul away the two nearly new doublewide mobile homes.

"If you don't make a whole lot of money, you don't belong in this county," said Waverly Bryant, a 12-year resident and ironworker who said he is putting his belongings in storage and heading to New Orleans for work.
It seems that if we want to make an honest difference in the lack of affordable housing, replacing such existing units with new, non-affordable units isn't going to get us very far. Indeed, preserving the housing opportunities that we have is as important as creating new ones, only, I guess, if it doesn't said in the way of unfettered profit.

I hope to have more soon...

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Sunday Round Up

Sunday Round Up

Looking back, my decision to write today instead of yesterday was a bad one, at least in terms of output. Sure, I caught up on some work around the house and spent a good amount of time enjoying the warm weather, which is really starting to test my nerves (and make me worry that my Weatherman Accountability feature is going to flop, if hasn’t already). But today is suddenly full of “real” stuff for me to do—blogging, apparently, doesn’t count.

Anyway, all I’ve got time for today is a News Round Up. If you haven’t already read my long-winded post on Doughoregan, it is sure to keep occupied until I get more time to write.

Speaking of Doughoregan, here’s a good story about a meeting held Friday to discuss the future of the colonial estate, and I’ve got a couple thoughts on what happened. First, it’s unfortunate that the only mention of transferring development rights involved the county and/or state purchasing them from the Carrolls. Second, there seems to be growing discontent over the Carrolls’ insistence of keeping the land private, and it surfaced in some pointed remarks. While the feelings are understandable—indeed, the Carrolls appear to be asking a lot and willing to sacrifice little—antagonizing won’t help find a solution. As Preservation Howard County president Mary Catherine Cochran said, "I want to see the Carrolls rewarded for 300 years of stewardship,” which is more than we can say for many other rural landowners.

Here’s a run down of who’s got what—“who” being politicians, and “what” being money. Of course, if you read Howard County Blog #1 (which you should), you would have known this already. He is consistently ahead of the local papers in breaking down political contributions.

Speaking of Howard County Blog #1, he’s got the skinny on another candidate for county executive. A recently retired state official, Tom Snyder, of Ellicott City, plans to run as an independent. Interesting.

The Columbia Association Board of Directors has endorsed the proposal to have 20 percent of new housing in Town Center set aside for moderate and middle income families; the proposal divides evenly the affordable housing among the two groups. If you’ve read this blog long enough, you probably know that I think relying strictly on such percentage-based set asides is not the long-term solution to affordable housing. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see 20 percent of downtown housing dedicated to lower income households; I just don’t know how much good it will really do. What I really find interesting about the story is the fact that the measure was approved 5 to 4 with two abstaining, and all we’re told is how two of the board members voted. We need more details! (If you know them, please let me know. I’d also like to know why some voted against something that seems relatively inconsequential but still good image-wise).


Friday, January 27, 2006

Preserving Doughregan, Developing Columbia...

(My deepest apologies for the length of this post [and the title, jeez]. At 2000 words, it’s obscenely long. But I think it's well worth a read.)

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but in Howard County, it might as well. An open patch of dirt with the right kind of zoning overlaid creates ideal conditions for crops that are just as valuable, though not as sustainable, as money trees: houses.

Of course, this is already well known. Developing Howard’s fertile hills and fields has long been a profitable enterprise, and with accelerating growth in property values, the incentives facing holders of developable acreage to sell out become harder and harder to resist, despite the work of various preservation programs and the good intentions of many property owners.

While not new, the story of Howard’s dwindling farmland took an interesting turn recently when Sun reporter Larry Carson wrote a detailed piece on Doughoregan, a 1,400-acre estate in western Ellicott City owned by decedents of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (more background on the story here and here). It seems upkeep costs (and incentives to develop) are the irresistible forces confronting the family, who, since the summer, have been talking to the county about ways to ensure the historic character of the land is preserved (and they get some cash).

This story isn’t new, however. Preserving 300 year old buildings costs money, while building houses on parts of the large property makes money. Easy as that. And, given the fact that 892 acres of the property are to be relieved of the development restrictions imposed by a 30-year easement with the Maryland Historic Trust, building houses never seemed so right.

But it’s not quite that easy, as described in a statewide editorial in the Sun yesterday (I was pointed to the editorial by an alert reader to whom I offer much thanks).

The Carrolls reportedly want to preserve 600 of the 892 acres by selling the development rights to the county for up to $24 million (or $40,000 an acre, twice the county's ceiling). Then they want to sell 200 acres for 350 houses served by new county utility lines to the rural area (and potentially providing them far more than $100 million).

The family maintains that this is the only way it can afford to preserve a large part of the estate, the 20-room manor house that dates back to 1720, and, not least, its ownership of the property. The alternative, under current zoning, is that the Carrolls could develop even more houses, 450, on one-acre lots across the 892 acres. This would be an even worse outcome for the county, but it could yield the family hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Sun gets it right—neither outcome is very desirable. But what’s desirable for the county and what’s desirable for landowners like the Carrolls are usually two different things altogether. To be sure, the land’s value is not purely financial; it has historic, environmental, and other hard-to-quantify—but no less important—values that would presumably provide justification for the county to use some of our collective resources (tax dollars) to have the property preserved. However, the county’s willingness to pay—rather, our collective willingness to pay—rarely matches the landowners’ actual or desired price for the property. Therein lies our problem.

Development rights for a large portion of the 892 acres should be purchased by the county for preservation, as the Carrolls propose. But instead of allowing houses on the remainder, that land also should be bought by the county to catch up with its desperate need for parks and future school sites. Howard couldn't afford this without plenty of aid from state and federal sources and perhaps national preservation groups. It also couldn't happen unless the Carrolls give up an unpalatable aspect of their proposal, the lack of any provision for public use of any part of their land.

The Sun’s proposal doesn’t address the problem I present: that the county, even with federal and state support, may not be willing or able to purchase this land at the fair market price. This was the dilemma faced last fall by a committee charged with finding ways to fix the county’s agricultural preservation program. The committee fell apart and nothing came of their work, but their mission, like the preservation program, was doomed to fail. Pitting the paltry and thinly spread resources of local governments against the financial single-mindedness of developers is a completely unfair fight. Accordingly, landowners cash in on the development cow—as they would/should.

But, if we allow other owners of large, undeveloped parcels of land to get fair market price for their property, how can we justify giving less to the Carrolls when their only sin is having a large patch of dirt that we value highly but won’t pay full price for?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to see any houses built on this property. Indeed, my ideal outcome is having all their land permanently preserved and making some of it accessible for to the public (it is, after all, a great piece of history that almost no one in Howard County knew about until recently). That said, the Carrolls shouldn’t be allowed to play by different rules.

But what to do? Well, this was all just a roundabout way of getting to something that I brought up in my Charrette Opposition Taxonomy a few days ago. One of the major problems many critics of the Charrette have with the proposed plan is that, by allowing up to 5,000 residential units on properties that would otherwise not be available for such profitable development, we’re basically just giving money away. And in this respect, I think the Charrette opposition has it right.

Without a change in the zoning, which won’t happen unless approved as part of the Town Center master plan process, less than 1,000 residential will be available for downtown construction. Clearly, I don’t support such a small number, as it would not bring about the necessary density to support many of the amenities—walkability, plazas, cultural offerings, restaurants—that we want, need, and deserve to have included in our new and improved Town Center. But receiving such amenities (which have always been promised) doesn’t mean we should give away the right to residential development, a right that we know carries with it tremendous value, especially in the heart of the Greatest City in America (sorry, Baltimore).

But what if we didn’t give General Growth and other Town Center property owners the right to develop housing? What if we made them buy it?

By this I don’t mean they should buy development rights from the county. Despite what it or others may think, the county has no right to develop residential properties. That right is conveyed (by the county, incidentally) only to owners of qualifying lands—namely, those with the right kind of zoning, people like the Carrolls. Moreover, purchasing the right to develop residential units in Town Center or elsewhere should not exempt anyone from paying for the impact of that development; indeed, as I hope to address soon, residential development in Town Center will strain existing resources and should ultimately pay for itself, either through existing or expanded taxation—that’s known as paying the full social cost of something. And it’s only fair.

The situation we are presented with is ideal for what’s known as Transfers of Development Rights (TDRs), a topic I touched upon in previous posts about preserving our remaining farmland and open spaces. There are currently many landowners in the rural west—where development is entirely inappropriate—possessing the right to build houses on their properties. In places where development is appropriate, like Town Center, there property owners lacking the right build residences. Seems to me like we’ve got a bunch of buyers and sellers, the makings of a market.

TDRs have been used in several jurisdictions around the country to keep development in its place. Under the right conditions, which we likely have now, these programs are highly successful. Montgomery County—and I know we’re not and don’t want to be our neighbors to the west, but bear with me—has preserved over 40,000 acres of farmland using only TDRs (and not public money).

In the past such programs would not have been successful, however. Until rather recently, we’ve had a large supply of land in areas appropriate for development—residential and otherwise—and attractive to developers, like Columbia and Ellicott City. It wasn’t until available land (and residential unit allocations and density) began drying up in the east that development really charged into the west. Yet, while the east is still the most appropriate location for development and likely still attractive to developers, we’re sacrificing our integrity, resources, and open spaces in a vain attempt to “control” the inevitable growth of our community. The fear of density, of putting growth where it belongs, is crippling our community.

By treating development rights like a limited supply of stocks, allowing them to be bought and sold based on the needs of the interested parties (with some governmental oversight, naturally), the right incentives are built in. Landowners know they’ll get a fair price, and can hold out selling until they think the market’s right. Developers get predictability by knowing they can tap into a pool of units when they need it. But neither gets a free ride. Landowners would loose the right to build on their property, giving us far more land in preservation than we could ever hope for out of tax dollars. Moreover, developers aren’t given unfettered access to the wealth of this community—wealth that is indeed amassed by the citizens of this community, our one true asset.

Of course, developers will surely trot out the argument that such a program would increase costs, endangering not only their profits (incentives to develop) but also the likelihood of affordable housing. Such arguments are, of course, petty. Additional costs would be spread over a dense, urban development, and on a per unit basis, could be as little as a few thousand (For example, the Carrolls are asking the county to buy their development rights at $40,000 per acre. If General Growth buys that acre instead, they could potentially use it to build 10 units—totally hypothetical—making it $4,000 per unit. Without question, an insignificant sum.)

Designed the right way, the solution really could be win-win-win.

However, there are a lot of details that must be worked out before a program like this could even be considered, including which landowners would qualify to participate; what is the right ratio of development density between various locations in the county; how transactions would take place; to what degree the county would be involved; and many more. None of these issues are unsolvable, and there are a host of similar programs that could help guide development of ours.

Our talk about such unique and effective programs has unfortunately been limited or nonexistent. The only mentions I’ve heard of development rights transfers was in a previous post of mine (I know, it's all about me) and in the final sentence from an e-mailer (perhaps the same person who e-mailed me) in Howard County Blog #1’s post about this topic last night.

With all of the work involved, we’re already running low on time if we want to have such a program in place before Doughoregan’s easement expires (May 2007) and the Charrette is approved (who knows).

Maybe it’s too idealistic. Maybe I’ve been filled with too many free market hearsays to objectively judge the merits of such an approach. I can’t say for sure, but if we don’t at least start discussing something like this, we will lose a great opportunity to enact a meaningful, cost-effective and efficient approach to one of the most intractable problems facing our community.

And with that, I’ll leave it to you. Discuss.

Mixing things up...

There is a good post over at Howard County Blog #2 (the one focused mainly on the Charrette) about the allocating affordable housing.

I have heard a lot of people talking about percentages of the median income in the county, but this strikes me as an irrelevant number. The median income finds the middle of the income distribution and doesn't tell us very much about the full distribution. To truly have mixed income housing you need housing for the entire range, preferably in proportions matching what people in the community can afford. Thus the starting point for mixed income housing needs to be: what are the incomes earned by the jobs in the community?

…To figure out what income-level mix in housing units we need it is important to get a better sense of the income ranges. How many jobs in the area pay less that $25,000 a year? How many pay $25,001 to $35,000? How many pay $35,001 to $45,000? How many pay $45,001 to $55,000? How many pay $55,001 to $65,000? How many pay $65,001 to $75,000? How many pay $75,001 to $100,000? How many pay over $100,000?
He's onto something. I'’ve heard this concept batted around for a little while now, and it strikes me as one of the better approaches for creating affordable housing. Certainly, as I have said many times before, our current system, even considering the Department of Planning and Zoning'’s proposed changes, is not going to make any meaningful difference in the overall lack of affordable housing. The mix of incomes in this county is (I presume) greatly out of step with the mix of housing choices; however, the actual extent of this discrepancy is unknown, and our lack of understanding of this imbalance is the first and most significant barrier to creating a better affordable housing program.

In developing Columbia, James Rouse understood that the best way to ensure a diverse community with housing choices for everyone was to build a diverse mix of homes—apartments, condominiums, townhouses, duplexes and single family homes are all prevalent in all of Columbia'’s villages. As we approach full "build out" in Columbia, the dwindling supply of new homes, coupled with the insane regional housing market, has increased the total costs of housing in general, pricing many families out of a market that was designed to include everyone. Evan at Howard County Blog #2 touches on this dilemma as it relates to young professionals earning between $30,000 and $45,000 per year:

If the calculation of what a person can afford to purchase is three times their annual income, then these young professionals would be looking for properties in the $90,000 to $135,000 range. You currently cannot find a condo in Howard County in that range, nor are there very many apartments that could be rented by people making this range of income. When I bought my one bedroom one bath condo 2.5 years ago I bought it for $110,500. A couple months ago an identical unit went for $205,000.

Unfortunately, there is no way we can replicate scale and scope of the housing choices created during Columbia's development; there isn't enough land. But we can replicate the concept, which is what Evan is rightly advocating.

To be sure, this approach presents a host of difficulties and would require a considerable amount of effort and political will to be enacted. One of the likely sticking points would be the level of governmental control over housing mixes and how you square that with a developerÂ’s need to make money. Overly restricting the available development options could lead to unintended consequences, particularly in the long-term (remember, we're thinking 30 years out). However, that is not to say that we couldn'’t create a system that is both flexible and prescriptive, in much the same way that New Town zoning was for many years.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who knows whether such an approach has been tried anywhere else. We know that thousands of jurisdictions have used inclusionary zoning (setting aside a percentage, usually around 15 percent, of all new development as affordable housing) to varying degrees of success; Montgomery County, one of the first to use such an approach, has created a significant amount of affordable housing, but has by no means found a panacea, if one even exists (not likely).

The true MVP (or why I still hate Sports Illustrated)...

After the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, SI's cover screamed "Baltimore Bullies" and included a picture of someone (I think Peter Boulware) shoving his hand into the facemask of some nameless member of the Giants. This cover annoyed me greatly, so much so that I wrote a mean and overly-emotional letter to the magazine's editors. Throughout that entire magical season, the coverage of the Ravens by the national media focused on Ray Lewis's murder trial and the "meanness" of the teams defenses. Even during the Super Bowl run, such stories were all you could read.

Meanwhile, quietly, Jermaine Lewis--then the team's kick returner--was doing what he always did: score touchdowns in some of the most electrifying, game-changing ways. I was fortunate enough to score a pair of tickets really close to the field and really close to the 50-yard line for the team's regular season finale on Christmas Eve against the Vinny and the Jets. In case you don't remember, Jermaine Lewis returned two punts for touchdowns during this game, and (I think) single handedly won it for the team, whose defense forgot to show up, allowing the Jets over 500 yards of total offense.

While Jermaine returned several kicks for touchdowns that year, this game was different; his son was stillborn just 11 days before. Christmas Eve was his first game back with the team.

During Super Bowl XXXV, the Giants returned a kick for a touchdown and appeared poised to actually put up a fight. Immediately after, however, Jermaine again stole the show with a kickoff return that all but iced the game for the Ravens. As he crossed the goal line, Lewis pointed to the sky, honoring his dead son and sending shivers through the bodies of every person who knew of his tragic story.

Of course, few people knew of his story then and even fewer know of it now. Lost among the stories of Ray Lewis's murder trial and Brian Billick's hubris was perhaps the most poignant, emotional story of any Super Bowl: That of a 5' 7" guy from Lanham, Maryland who nobody thought would be worth a damn in the NFL but played with more heart, more passion, and more courage than anyone else to take the field that year, or any year for that matter.

All of the emotion that I felt during that moment came back to me the other day when I read this piece on ESPN.com by David Fleming. Like Jermaine, Fleming lost a son in childbirth that year, and wrote a book called Noah's Rainbow about coping with loss and finding comfort in sharing his experiences with those who can most understand, people like Jermaine.

Sometimes sports is just sports, filled with trivial, artificially-induced emotion. But sometimes, it transcends the wins, the losses, the uniforms, the field, the faux rivalries, and all the other junk we care so much about, and it takes on a purpose far greater than entertainment.

Jermaine Lewis will forever rank among the greatest men to play for the Ravens. He was, and is, an inspiring figure, one who stands out for his actions both on and off the field. And with great pride I will always be able to say about the two touchdowns he scored against the Jets, "I was there when..."

...football, for a few brief, magical moments, ceased being "just a game."

Thursday, January 26, 2006


Via Howard County Blog #1, I stumbled onto this website today, which digs deep into the Charrette and who's pulling the strings. I haven't had any time to look it over in any detail, but it seems pretty comprehensive.

I'll have more to say about it soon.

Lots and lots of politics

I don’t really have time to address them today, but there are a couple of good political stories in the Flier today. The first one focuses on the local Democrats and their possible “infighting.” Wait, I’m not supposed to call it “infighting.” How about strong disagreements within the local party over who should run and who should be elected to various offices? It is not, however, infighting. Just making sure we’re clear on that.

The second Flier story focuses on the Republicans and their organized campaign to win the majority of the council seats and the county executive race. Among registered voters, the GOP trails the Democrats, but independents in this county (come on, make up your mind!) usually vote Republican.

Both stories are long but well worth a read, and since I should be able to write something about them this weekend, please prepare yourself.

Finally, the original Howard County Blog (which already beat me to the punch on the above Flier articles and has really cranked up the writing) has a lengthy post on the District 4 council race and it’s potential impact on the county executive race. Go check it out.

And the skies turned black...

Unhappy with your neighbors? Follow the lead of one local homeowners association and have them forcibly removed.

Balloons, noise makers and even fake dead birds could be used to scare off a flock of more than 130 vultures that has roosted in a Columbia neighborhood and damaged several properties.

On Jan. 24, the Gables of Columbia homeowner's association unanimously voted to hire a private wildlife control firm to remove the birds, said Theodore Hart, president of the community's homeowner's association.

The flock, which contains black and turkey vultures, has roosted in a large evergreen tree, on the roofs of houses and even on cars for roughly a month in the townhouse community, on Carriage House Road in Long Reach.
(An integrated flock? How very Columbia.)

Apparently, in an effort to find a good night’s rest after cleaning up the aftermath of our daily Cars vs. Animals war, the vultures have upset their hosts by having loud parties and, um, pooping on stuff (like cars and roofs). They could at least have the decency to pick up after themselves.

Of course, I’m just having a little fun. I’m sure the flock is a pretty intimidating, if ultimately benign, presence. And because the birds are protected by federal law, residents can have them removed without it weighing heavily on their consciences.

A word of advice, however, to the firm hired to remove the birds: when confronted by a predator or other enemy, the normally passive Turkey Vultures will vomit a foul-smelling, half-digested piece of meat as a deterrent. Just letting you know.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Money...it's a gas

Following up on previous “Follow the Money” stories, Larry Carson from the Sun has the low-down on who’s stuffing the county executive candidates’ coffers.

The two front-runners in this year’s race for Howard County executive got about a third of their contributions from builders and other development-related interests, campaign finance reports show, at a time when congestion caused by growth and development is shaping up as a major campaign issue.
I am shocked, shocked, I tell you! My indignation aside, isn’t “congestion caused by growth” a little too narrow to be a major campaign issue. Obviously, growth in general will be an issue, but the debate will likely encompass all of growth’s impacts -- schools, traffic, environment and infrastructure -- not just congestion, which is clearly just a subcategory of a major issue. But I'm arguing semantics. Back to the shocking details.
West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman received about 31 percent of his $161,700 in contributions over the past year from the industry, compared with about 34 percent of the $173,658 raised by fellow County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, a Sun review of the reports showed.
The story then goes on to give each candidate ample space to prove their growth-control bona fides. Despite Merdon’s entirely-motivated-by-politics opposition to the Comp Lite bill from last year, he and Ulman deserve equal credit/blame for development in this county. Furthermore, the fact that both have received a roughly similar percentage of contributions from developers provides nice balance.

All in all, it’s a wash.

Meanwhile, Harry Dunbar, the third announced candidate for county executive, has not taken any money from developers.

I’ll admit that all this money is a bit unseemly. But any attempt to keep developers and their deep pockets out of campaigns would be messy and probably unconstitutional; you can’t just arbitrarily restrict a certain group from participating in the process because you oppose their otherwise legal activities. Granted, candidates can make a statement and choose not to take the money (HA!).

But what if we restrict all groups from funding campaigns?
Common Cause Maryland’s new executive director, Bobbie Walton, said public financing of campaigns is her group’s solution.

“Realistically speaking, the most important function of local government is land-use decisions,” she said, noting that developers often have more money, and it may appear, more influence, than the average citizen.
As much as I’d like to see all campaigns publicly financed, that’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever gonna happen. The system is too entrenched (and long standing).

But what about the belief that builders have more influence than the average citizen? Not surprisingly, a builder has something to say about that.
“I expect to get good government” for contributions, said builder Harry J. “Chip” Lundy Jr. who organized $6,500 in family and corporate gifts to Merdon. For him, that means building the new classrooms and widening the roads needed to solve congestion problems. “Business leaders should participate more in the process,” Lundy said.
I don’t disagree with that last part, unless by participation he only means greasing the wheels, so to speak. What’s wrong with daylight?

Continuing after he probably should have stopped, Lundy adds this little gem:
“The anti-growth - or the public - is just as much of an interest group as the homebuilders. I’m interested in continuing my industry,” Lundy said.
Ah, the Developer’s Lament; it’s been so long since I’ve heard that melancholy song.
But, in this case, Mr. Hubris is actually right. We are the biggest interest group there is, and while as individuals we can’t match the financial prowess of the developers, collectively we can.

However, what’ s more important is that while money may buy some votes and it may help some politicians reach office, it is not (I hope) the sole determinant of elections.

Voters are. And in that respect, we're all equal.

Round Up

A couple of quick items for today.

The Turf (Valley) war is almost over, and it looks like the residents won't be very happy. Although many of their concerns were valid, the legal framework the Planning Board must use to make a decision precluded most of these concerns from being heard. It's not the best system, but it's what we've got, I guess. Also, I don't think the residents in this case -- by prolonging the proceedings and criticizing public officials -- engendered much sympathy from the Planning Board.

A new place to get fresh bread is opening in Columbia. If you're as big of a carb-freak as I am this is surely welcome news.

The General Assembly will again, for the third year in a row, consider a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. State action is the only way to truly ensure fairness in this matter, and I hope (for the sake of us in this county, at least) our representatives in Annapolis take action. My only request is that we cool off the rhetoric a bit and take the honest road (for once) in discussing the issue.

Finally, I'm not sure which party is more worthy of scorn for its reaction to the recent circuit court ruling that found that Maryland's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. Although I'm completely at odds with their beliefs, at least the Republicans are being honest about their discrimination. The Democrats, meanwhile, are pathetically trying to sweep it under the rug until after November's elections. After tallying the votes, both are equally worthy of scorn. A pox on both parties!

I know I'm in the minority in this state for supporting gay marriage (I think there was a poll done last year that found 48 percent opposed and 42 percent in favor of it). That's fine. I'd rather support what's right than what's popular.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

What the hell happened? Part II

After rereading several older posts yesterday, I’ve started to worry that I’m mischaracterizing the position of many of the Charrette’s critics. In an effort to make writing these posts easier, I lumped together into one group numerous individuals and critiques, often at the expense of clarity and honesty. To be sure, there is no single position, person or group that encompasses the array of questions and criticism directed at the Charrette and master plan process.

Just as hundreds of us came into the Charrette with our own ideas about the future of Columbia, hundreds of us left the Charrette with our own ideas about the future of Columbia. The only change was that after the Charrette we had something to compare our ideas with, and for many of us, this comparison left a bitter taste.

Although the breadth of questioning is extensive, there are several main concerns that have been publicly expressed over the nascent Town Center master plan. And at this risk of mischaracterizing again, here’s a brief run down of what I see are the major issues surrounding the Charrette (if you know of or hold a belief not listed here, please post a comment or send an email -- I’m trying to do an honest assessment of all the relevant issues and could use as much help as possible…begging done). Note that there is considerable overlap between these categories.

No or Almost No Growth: There is a contingent of people, notably county executive candidate Harry Dunbar, who are opposed to further growth in Town Center. The variations on this theme include No Growth, No Residential Growth, and No Growth on the Crescent Property.

Too Much Growth, Particularly Residential: Those expressing this sentiment aren’t necessarily opposed to growth, but the 5,000 new residential units figure that has been floated by DPZ strikes them as excessive. However, they appear open to lesser amounts of residential development, and commercial development doesn’t appear to bother quite as much.

Too Much Density: This concern is closely related to the previous two, but it is distinct in that it is based on the idea that Columbia’s Town Center should be more suburban than urban. Taller buildings, parking garages, and a “grid” network of streets are all unwanted. Generally, they envision a more open, spread out Town Center similar to what it is now.

Inadequate Infrastructure: There are several subcategories for this position, namely Present and Future, and Schools and Roads. New development, it is said, will overwhelm existing infrastructure, and proposed improvements will do little to alleviate this strain. School sites have not been adequately planned for, which is especially troubling given the crowded nature of our existing schools. Moreover, the street grid, despite claims of the planners to the contrary, will be insufficient to deal with the increased traffic. Some believe traffic is already awful.

Too Much Money for the Developers: By allowing a lot of new development, specifically residential, that wouldn’t have been approved otherwise, we’re creating a massive windfall for the existing Town Center landowners -- mainly General Growth -- say proponents of this stance. And we’re creating this windfall and getting nothing in return. Indeed, some say, we’ll be forced to foot the bill for promised amenities like landscaping, cultural spaces, plazas, and maintenance, while a Chicago-based company with dwindling local ties gets fat off our bounty.

Too Few Details in the Plan: Those taking this position claim the plan is (or will be) too vague, affording too much freedom to the developers, which may, in the long run, invalidate the entire planning effort. This concern is very much related to others, particularly the Inadequate Infrastructure, and questions the commitments of developers to the long-term success of Town Center. Also related to this position are concerns over the phasing and monitoring of development in accordance with the master plan.

Things Are Moving Too Fast: Basically, those with this view just want to be sure all the bases are covered, even if it means considerable delay.

Not Enough Citizen Participation: A recent Flier editorial expressed this view, saying that citizens should be more involved in the “editing” process of the Charrette results and master plan development.

I guess that’s most of what I’ve seen. Of course, there are likely other concerns that I’ve overlooked, but these seem to be the main ones. Now, as part of the What the Hell Happened Series, I’ll go through the list and address each as best I can. Though I disagree with much of the Charrette opposition -- especially since there is still no actual, you know, plan -- I think there are significant concerns that need to be addressed and for which solutions are readily available.

New Feature: Knowlege Drop

Yup, another new feature for Hayduke’s place. Titled “Knowledge Drop,” I’ll use this feature, appropriately enough, to drop some knowledge on y’all; “knowledge” being pithy facts and other bits of information that I come across in my journeys through the World Wide Web.

Today’s Drop was inspired by a remarkably decent dining experience I had recently. Accustomed to the exceedingly long wait times, poor service, bland food, and nonexistent ambiance of so many of our local restaurants, I was pleasantly surprised the other day when, in an attempt to redeem a gift card, Abbzug and I visited the Cheesecake Factory (Oh thank you, great Cheesecake bosses, for choosing our humble city to host one of your establishments. We’re not worthy. Really, we’re not.).

Anyway, the trip only involved two of the four common ills of Columbia restaurants. Surprisingly, the wait wasn’t horrible (only 35 minutes!) and the service was good. At least the food and ambiance lived down to expectations.

It was this experience that made me wonder (at least more than I usually do) why restaurants in Columbia and Howard County so bad, and why we are required to wait for so long to sit in their crowded dining halls and eat their lame food.

The armchair economist in me always believed it had something to do with a market shortage -- that is, demand for dining out is greater than the supply of choices, so restaurants can afford (to some extent) to make us wait AND eat bad food. But, this was just another hair-brained thought of mine, with little basis in reality.

Then, I stumbled upon a clue while visiting this very useful website: Columbia has 0.6 full service restaurants per 1,000 residents (full service being where you sit down and they bring you food, not McDonald’s). That number alone, however, means very little. But what about if we compare Columbia’s ratio to other communities?

Towson, MD: 0.8 

Gaithersburg, MD: 0.9

Hagerstown, MD: 0.9

Frederick, MD: 1

Harrisburg, PA: 1

Boulder, CO: 1.2 

Bethesda, MD: 1.3

San Francisco, CA: 1.9

(Source: US Census data, County and Zip Business Patterns, 2002)

Okay, I can understand San Francisco and Bethesda having more than twice the restaurants per person of Columbia. And I’ll give you Boulder, with its university and large population of anti-corporate hippies. But Harrisburg, Frederick, Gaithersburg and HAGERSTOWN? Come on, we deserve better than Hagerstown, don’t we?

A couple other interesting tidbits:

Columbia’s Town Center (and 21044 Zip Code, for that matter) comes in at 0.3 full service restaurants per 1,000 residents. Pathetic.

Similarly devoid of restaurants is The Woodlands, Texas -- another Rouse Company planned community, albeit one with an extremely pretentious name. The Houston suburb has a ratio identical to Columbia’s.

Remember, one of the four guiding principles of Columbia’s development was that the city would meet “all the basic needs of its people including housing, jobs, recreation, educational and cultural institutions and health care.” I guess, however, we’ll let the Rouse Company/General Growth slide by on a technicality, since eating isn’t included as a “basic” need.

Monday, January 23, 2006

What the hell happened? Part I

Rather than start at the beginning for this series, I'm going to start at the end, although other posts won't follow in reverse chronological order. In fact, I wouldn't expect any type of order--chronological, logical, or otherwise--for this series. Things will get done when they get done.

The most recent news regarding the Charrette was Liz Bobo's very well-attended forum on January 14. After reading the story, I thought I was going to be stuck with a big plate of crow. In previous posts I questioned whether the vocal critics of the Charrette represented the view of the majority, and since Bobo has been pretty outspoken about the many problems she sees, I initially thought the large turnout was a proxy for overall community displeasure. After all, nowhere in the story does it say what the prevailing attitude of attendees was.

Then, however, I read this column that asks a lot questions to which it provides no answers. However, it hinted at a few answers for questions I had.

"Jim set out here to do an anti-suburban city," Chuck Levine, a six-year resident, said at the meeting. "We have got to recover from suburbia. The future of Columbia depends on density." Rouse, he said, did not reach the goals he set. "What we have here is not a better city," which is one of the tenets of Rouse's Columbia Dream.

In fact, new resident Judy Baer finds that suburban sprawl here is the same as in any community. "I can't find a spool of thread at the mall," she said. "We need [urban] planning again."

So, that was at least two people who don't seem very anti-Charrette (a few arguments against the Charrette I've heard are that it allows for too much density and it attempts to make Town Center too urban instead of suburban, like it is now). While I'm hesitant to draw any further conclusions about the opinions of the forum attendees, it doesn't appear that the entire day was spent criticizing the Charrette outcome, which I was concerned it would. Instead, this little bit of information shows me that people, regardless of their stance on the Charrette, want to know more, something I am completely in favor of, especially at this early stage in the process.

Then, I noticed the Flier's weekly poll posed this question to readers: "Do you think plans for downtown Columbia development should be delayed?" Although the survey process is very un-scientific and easily gamed, the results are nonetheless surprising, to me anyway. In case the link doesn't work (you can only vote and see the results once because of cookie-related reasons), the tally as of today was 42 percent "Yes" and 58 percent "No," suggesting that at least a healthy contingent of folks think the master plan is on the right track.

Again, I'm very hesitant to draw any real conclusions from this information. However, the post-Charrette discussion has to this point been dominated by those wishing to poke holes in a plan that's not even finished. Moreover, much of the criticism has been based solely on ideology and hyperbole and while I won't claim to be ideology free, given the ease of sourcing information on a blog, I'll try to back up much of what I say with proven facts.

Charrette: What Happened?

Unquestionable is the profundity of Homer Simpson.

The only true philosopher of our time, Homer has spoken of the most pressing issues facing our society, usually with the delicacy of a sledge hammer. One of his finest sayings, one that is surely oft-repeated in the ale houses of our country, extolled the virtues of vice:

“To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

He is a man with truth running through his veins.

And it is with the guidance of this one man--this Everyman--that I broach the topic of Town Center.

“To the Charrette! The cause of, and solution to, all of Columbia’s problems.”

What was heralded as a “new” way to plan growth--one that would help mitigate differences and achieve compromise--is beginning to resemble the old way with each passing day. Compromise is a distant memory, swept into the dark corners of the Wilde Lake High School cafeteria, and the cacophony of critical voices has swelled to deafening levels, as indictments of the process and its sponsors and facilitators are thrown without hesitation (and often without ground). This is not to say criticism is unwarranted--indeed, it surely is. It is instead a way to preface the question: “What the hell happened?"

While my initial plan was to write a comprehensive post about the Charrette and its aftermath, covering all of the details and offering my position on most of the debated issues, that doesn't seem possible for several reasons. The main reason, however, is the scope of such an undertaking. Sure, I've got free time, but not that much.

So instead, I'm going to try to address each issue individually as time permits and as the situation changes; as should be expected from an approach such as this, many of the posts will overlap, and when they do, I'll include all relevant links. And though I haven't figured out how to do it yet, permalinks for each post in this series will be available under a soon-to-be-created "Charrette" banner on the right.

I haven't decided if this is a good idea or a bad one, or if it will even work or just flop. Like the Charrette, I guess we'll have to wait and see.

A request...

In the course of putting together something on the Charrette, I remembered something I had thought about several years ago (before there was ever a Charrette, but after the Downtown issue had surfaced).

Many today are concerned about the promised amenities of the Charrette--the plazas, landscaping, etc.--as well as the associated and costly infrastructure improvements--new streets, interchanges, schools, etc. Underlying this concern is a belief that the developers will be the sole beneficiaries of a Charrette-induced financial windfall, and we'll be stuck with the bills. This is a very valid concern, especially given the scope and scale of the proposed Town Center development.

However, numerous cities have dealt with this before through the use of various taxing mechanisms--namely, Tax Increment Financing and Special Taxing Districts. Though I'll describe these in more detail during a later post, I'm wondering if anyone reading this has heard any discussions about the use of such measures for Town Center and whether using either would even be feasible. I haven't heard mention such tactics, but I haven't been able to attend any Focus Group meetings and I certainly don't have an insider information.

If you know whether these special tax schemes have been discussed or why they may not be applicable to Town Center, shoot me an email (it will save me a lot of research work, meaning more time to blog!).

Sunday, January 22, 2006


There won't be a Charrette piece today. Despite (or because of) having my mind utterly consumed with the Charrette, I've not been able to coalesce all of these thoughts and reactions into a cogent post. Yet.

But, I do have an outline (sort of)!

(No, I'm not prolonging this to maintain interest in the blog. Well, not entirely anyway.)

First link to HoCo Blog

HoCo Blog (aka Howard County Blog #2) yesterday posted his concerns about the recently approved Plaza Residences (aka the 22-story Building of Much Consternation). After discussing the importance of long term planning, he lays out an argument against the building.

It is on these grounds that I am gravely concerned about the new 22 story building that the Planning Board just approved. The nature of a condo building is a developer builds it and then sells off its units to individuals. Thus the financial interest of the developer is only for short term sales. In a housing market like the one we are currently in, the interests of the developer is simply to build it fast because they know that anything they build will sell. Thus the developer has no market incentive not to leave the community with a blight.

Nowhere is this problem in the 22 story building more apparent than in parking. The developer is building only 1.5 parking spaces per residential unit and many of these spaces are tandem parking (where cars park behind each other blocking each other in). Anyone who has ever parked in an underground garage in DC knows how cramped and hard to maneuver in garages can be. Now imagine the strains of constantly moving cars in such a cramped space puts on everyday life. Imagine the additional cost of nicks and scratches cars will inevitably get in such a place. No imagine someone who has bought a half million to a million dollar condo putting up with this parking situation for long. If the housing market declines it is just such units as these that will be the first to decline. And if that happens the developer will have gotten their money and be long gone and the community will be left with a blight.
As much as I'd like to be able to scoop up one of these condos in a couple years for $200,000 (or less, depending on the degree of blightedness), I don't see that happening. Ever.

It is true that most of the developer's interest is in the short term, but the only path to short term success is convincing buyers that their long term investment won't be a waste. To focus solely on the developer is to look only at half of the situation.

Potential buyers for this property, all of whom will be forced to shell out over half a million dollars, won't make a purchase without assuring themselves that their investment is sound. Many people buy things impulsively without thinking through all the factors, but such purchases rarely involve large, expensive things like homes. iPods, yes. Condos, um, not so much.

Once the developer has made his millions, these buyers become the stewards for the property, the ones with a large, vested interest in the success of the building. Almost all of them will know what they're getting into, and if the developer hasn't done enough to make the property attractive and to assure buyers that it won't result in blight, then people won't buy the condos.

Developers, one would imagine, spend a considerable amount of time conducting market research before proposing such large projects. This research--as well as their own past experience--guides many of the specific decisions related to the project--for instance, on-site amenities, location and tenant parking requirements (it should be noted here that the plan calls for 288 parking spaces for the residential units [and four spaces for a ground floor coffee shop], meaning there will be 1.8 spots per unit, not 1.5 as stated in the blog post).

At some point, in the midst of spreadsheets, market analyses, and sample pro formas, the developer realized that people would be willing to spend up to a million dollars to live on the graveyard of a past Bennigan's. If their calculations are right, we'll have a bunch a wealthy new neighbors. If not, we'll have a bunch of low-cost, amenity-laden condos for sale at low, low prices--"blight" seems like a bit of a stretch. However, since the developer clearly has a short term financial interest in this project, I'd put my money on the former.

Sunday Round Up (Playoff Edition)

I'm trying to get a bunch of stuff done during the early part of today so that I can watch the final two non-Super Bowl football games of the season without interruption. Because I turned the television on after waking I up this morning, however, I have already lost valuable time. I know, excuses, excuses.

It's my blog and I'll Round Up if I want to.

Speaking of rounding up...I had a discussion with a couple of friends on Friday night. I've noticed that more and more, cashiers are giving me only silver change, rounding up to the closest five cent interval and leaving pennies out of the transaction entirely. To some extent, this has been happening for years. However, instead of being the exception, this change-giving practice now appears to be the rule, or at least more likely to occur than the alternative. Granted, I've collected only anecdotal evidence to this point, but it does conform with a long held belief of mine--namely, that pennies will soon be entirely worthless and phased out (I arrived at this belief was developed during the Great Penny Shortage of 1995).

But, hey, that's just my five cents.

On, then, to the Round Up.

Is this an act of desperation or are they finally seeing the light? Opponents of the Turf Valley expansion have decided to change their approach to the case, opting to be "friendlier" and "more professional." Unfortunately, it may be too late for the new, less-confrontational approach to have any impact.

Nothing brings out letter writers (and their ideology) like a question about tax cuts. See here for various takes on Robey's proposal, and here's my admittedly vague stance.

Let's see how many people write to the Sun this week, after the editors posed this question: "Police have charged Brandy M. Britton, 41, of working as a prostitute out of her home on Shirley Meadow Court in Ellicott City. Does this concern you, or should it not be taken that seriously?" Send your responses here.

Rock, rock, rock and roll high school. River Hill's annual RHHStival is growing in popularity. Alas, the requirement that participating bands have at least one member in a Howard County high school precludes Hayduke's musical troop from auditioning. Alas, indeed.


Not so new news...

First reported here was the story of the new grocery store for the Kings Contrivance village center. Despite coming in second in the race to provide timely news to Howard Countians, the Sun today tells the tale of Safeway's departure.

Although the Sun has a few additional details--typically boring stuff like square footage--the story is worth some excerpts if only to validate my belief that EVERYONE hates the current Safeway.

Hillary Bierce, a village resident who said she had stopped shopping at the Safeway, was pleased to hear Harris Teeter is coming to the center.

"I think it's wonderful. ... I couldn't be happier," Bierce said.

She said she had a good experience when she shopped at a Harris Teeter during a vacation trip years ago.

"I remember it had a good reputation in the community, and people recommended that I go shop at that store," she said.

Bierce and Heidi Gaasch, another village resident, said they are not concerned about the lack of a supermarket at the center during the construction period.

"Tonight, I told my husband to stop and get some ginger ale on his way home," Gaasch said. "I gave him three store choices, and none were [the Kings Contrivance] Safeway anyway."

Can't you just feel the love?

Of course, it may take a couple of years before Harris Teeter can move in, and for much of that time, there will be no grocery store to "anchor" the village center. Some are concerned by this.
"We will absolutely keep the rest of the center open during the construction period to continue to serve the community," [Kimco rep Kevin Allen] said. "We are evaluating internally some promotions and advertising to encourage the community to shop the village center while the grocery store is closed."
Don't worry. If anything, simply removing the Safeway will likely result in a net gain of village center shoppers.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Post-Charrette happenings...

I really want to respond to articles about the Charrette Forum held last week and this long, thoughtful letter to the editor, but since I have got to have facts to back up my positions, it's going to take a little bit of research. I will spend the rest of today reading over the plethora of materials on the Charrette website and hope to have something written for tomorrow.

Just a word of warning, I might not have a chance to write anything by tomorrow, and even if I do, it might be only the first installment. But, then, nothing good was ever written in a matter of hours (for example, see any number of posts on this blog).

Digital HoCo II

Wow, the county has really entered the digital age.

You can now recieve a weekly county executive Podcast. Here's how to subscribe.


Money...it's a hit

The first campaign finance reports for this year were due last week to the state board of elections. Because campaign finance isn't really my cup of tea, I'll leave it up to two other bloggers to pick up the slack. David Wissing at the Hedgehog Report has a run down of all the local candidates, while (the original) Howard County Blog has detailed analyses of the contributions for the two executive candidates who reported this time (Harry Dunbar didn't raise enough money to warrant a report).

Howard County Blog seems to be implying something nefarious in his analysis of Ulman's report--drawing attention to the fact a considerable amount of Ulman's money was raised in the last two months. While I agree with him that the Sun's coverage of these reports may not have been entirely fair to both candidates, I don't think there's anything strange or underhanded about Ulman's recent surge in fundraising. He didn't announce his candidacy for county executive--a much more expensive race than the council, to be sure--until November (well, technically, he still hasn't announced it). Upon declaring his intentions to run, one would expect Ulman to pick up the pace, which he did.

But see for yourself. If you're really interested, you can visit the board of elections' website to see the reports with your own unbiased eyes.

Dueling committees...

Somebody's playing a game of political one-upmanship and somebody's being honest, it's just impossible to tell who's who. From the Post:

The Democratic county executive and the Republican chairman of the County Council are claiming credit for first pursuing the idea of a task force to prepare for an expected surge of new jobs and residents as a result of Fort Meade's growth. Last year, the Pentagon's base realignment plan called for moving more than 5,300 jobs over the next six years to the Army post in western Arundel, the biggest expansion among military installations in Maryland.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon (Northeast County) issued a news release Jan. 6 saying he planned to introduce legislation to form a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) task force.

Last Thursday, County Executive James N. Robey announced in his eighth and final State of the County speech that he was forming a BRAC executive task force and hiring a BRAC "czar" to lead it.

Yes, I talked about this last week, but only briefly. And, after reading stories in the Post and the Flier, as well as the Flier's editorial, there is more I'd like to add.

First, I stand by my assertion that Merdon's timing, more so than Robey's, seems suspicious. Robey claims to have been working on this task force for three months, enlisting the help of Howard's Economic Development Authority--the CEO of which has been publicly discussing this issue since at least November. Meanwhile, as far as I know, Merdon's acting pretty much by himself at this point--he is the sole sponsor his committee-forming legislation.

Second, creating task forces should be the duty of the executive, while the council should act as advisors and approvers. That, it seems to me, is the way our government works. I may be wrong, though.

Regardless, if this was actually about doing what's right for the county, and not just what's right for a couple politicians, Robey and Merdon (and the entire council) would work together on this matter. However, Merdon is more interested in attaching his name to the initiative than he finding an actual solution. From the Flier article linked above:

"Obviously, I would like to work with the county executive on Fort Meade, but what he has announced doesn't affect what I am going to do. I am still planning to introduce legislation," Merdon said.

Merdon, a Republican, has announced plans to run for county executive. Robey, a Democrat, plans to run for the District 13 state Senate seat. Term limits prohibit Robey from running for county executive again.

"It is imperative that we understand the local impact on economic development, transportation, employment, housing and education in Howard County," Merdon said.

Both Robey's and Merdon's proposal requires appointment of a task force composed of specialists in transportation, housing, economic development and other experts appointed by the county executive. The County Council would also appoint task force members under Merdon's plan, which he plans to introduce in legislation by Jan. 26.

Merdon also had this snarky, "I'm taking my ball and going home" thing to say about Robey's proposal.
"It's a reaction to the resolution I proposed," Merdon said. "I hope he's successful in getting the committee formed."
No he doesn't. If he really hopes Robey's successful, he would drop his legislation and assist the executive in creating the committee. An initiative with the support of the county executive and the council chairman is guaranteed to go somewhere, whereas having the two act independently risks, as the Flier editorial noted, both failing.

Both committees would study the same thing, would be comprised of similar people from a similarly wide-range of backgrounds, and would probably come up with the same recommendations. Have duplicate committees, therefore, would be a waste of time and money.

Former council chairman Guy Guzzone sums it up nicely.

Council member Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) said he and Merdon attended meetings of the development authority's strategic planning group, where BRAC was a major focus.

Guzzone said planning for BRAC "should be done by the County Council, the county executive, the Economic Development Authority, all the major players. We should do it together. That's the way it was headed."

While I applaud Merdon for being the first one to issue a press release on this issue, it's time that he backs down. As he may soon find out, things like this are the domain of the county executive, not the council (although it should certainly be involved), and striking out on his own now might make things worse for him later.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Coming soon to a vacant lot near you...

The contentious 22-story Plaza Residences condominium tower was approved by a 3 to 1 vote of the Planning Board yesterday.

The building, which would be the tallest in the county, is designed to bring a grander, more urban look to Columbia with a 275-foot-tall balconied condominium tower soaring above the Mall in Columbia and Lake Kittamaqundi, longtime landmarks.
There has been vehement opposition to this building from numerous county residents, who view it as out of place in the context of Town Center and the forthcoming master plan. That may be so, but as I've tried to say several times before, the building was never subject to the guidelines of the Charrette and given the current zoning and other legal requirements, the Planning Board really had no other options but to approve it. It's not the prettiest building (see picture below), but it's legal.

Obviously, the height of the building is out of character with the existing downtown; I'm not going to contest that. However, there are no limits on building height for that property, invalidating the main argument against it.

The board also rejected e-mailed requests from residents to limit the building's height. Tammy CitaraManis, chairman of the board, said height limitations should have been set when the property was rezoned in 2002 at the request the Rouse Co., which formerly owned the land.

"I'm not sure I agree at this time that we as a planning board can reach back and say we need to make it lower," she said.

"There should have been height restrictions. The other Planning Board blew it. It's obviously an issue," said board member Linda Dombrowksi.

Some things can be foreseen and some can't, just as some people, James Rouse being one, can foresee things that others can't. Had those opposed to the Plaza foreseen the likelihood of tall buildings in Town Center, they could have enacted height limits years before this plan was ever created. Indeed, at least one of those most opposed to the Plaza had that power.

Lloyd Knowles, a former member of the council and Planning Board, called the plaza "a sore thumb. I think it's completely out of character with the downtown area."

Yet, in his time on the Planning Board and council, Knowles failed to impose any height restrictions on Columbia properties. Granted, he may have attempted to do so (I wasn't living here when he was a public official), but what seems more likely is that he, and those he served with, never saw in Columbia's future a building of such height, thinking instead that the "Next American City" would never actually be what it was always planned to be, a city.

I don't mean to criticize Knowles in particular. Rather, I bring this up to make a point about our ability to predict things even just a few years in the future. Most of us are awful at this. Some are decent. Very few excel.

This breakdown of individual "visionariness" is what troubles me about the Charrette backlash we're seeing now. I'll address this more fully soon, but for now we'll just say that few, if any, of us have the inherent ability to look at our current situation and extrapolate into the future. Those who do--we'll call them Pragmatic Visionaries--chart the course, while the rest of us (myself included) just try to keep up with the times; change is troubling enough, and trying to predict or control it is simply beyond our abilities.

I don't know if that came out the right way. This post shouldn't be regarded as disparaging to the Charrette participants (hey, I'm one of them!). It's merely an attempt to be forthright about our limitations, which we must admit to ourselves before we can honestly assess the merits of our Town Center master plan.

But I'm delving too far into what I plan to write about this weekend.

For now, here's a picture of our future, love it or hate it.

Tax and spend?

There go those damn liberals again; always trying to cut our taxes.

A majority of County Council members said they support County Executive James Robey's proposal to cut the property tax rate by 3 cents, although two of the five members said the council should perform an extensive review of the budget before deciding to cut revenue.

Council chairman Christopher Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said the council should perform a comprehensive appraisal of Howard's tax situation.

"I'm not ready to sign up for that proposal," Merdon said of Robey's proposed property tax cut. "I'd like to review all of our taxes and provide the most common-sense tax relief possible."

Wait, am I reading that right? A Republican hesitating to cut taxes. What's next, gay cowboys? Oh, nevermind.

In all seriousness, I'm not completely sold on these tax cuts, either. First off, I'm always a little wary of making big decisions during election years. But more fundamentally, it seems like we should cut those taxes that we raised only a few years ago--namely, the income tax.

However, I can also see why cutting property taxes may be a better idea than cutting income taxes. With the massive assessment increases most homeowners have witnessed over the last several years, cutting the property tax rate not only saves folks money, but it lessens the blow of their increased, but yet unrealized, property values.

Regardless of these choices, it is clear that some taxes should be cut lest the insatiable beast that is our county government swallow recent budget surpluses.

That's right...

It's Round Up time.

I'm looking at about 15 news stories from today that merit some kind of comment. As much as I'd like to get through them all, I'm not that prolific (who am I kidding, I'm not even partly prolific). Well, I probably could if I gave each story as little attention as I do in the Round Ups. However, since many of the stories are related and all deal with important issues, that wouldn't be very fair. The following stories, meanwhile, absolutely deserve a short shrift.

A proposal to change the county's affordable housing program has drawn the ire of local affordable housing advocates, who claim that the plan--which would make reduced cost housing available via a tiered system to a wider range of households--amounts to taking from the poor to give to the less poor. In an abstract sense, they're right. But the housing market ain't abstract. The problem with the county's proposal is not it's lack of fairness; the problem is that it won't work, just like the current system doesn't work. While the affordable housing advocates focus on the trees, the forest is being clear cut around them. Creating a housing stock to match families of all incomes cannot be accomplished alone by the county's existing or proposed program, which is just a rip-off of the same type of ineffectual program used by cities and counties around the country. As I've said before, we need more information and we need to look at affordable housing in a broader context--in much the same way James Rouse did.

Here's a possible solution to affordable housing: take money from candidates and give it to lower-income families to use as downpayments on houses. If we take just the money raised by our county executive candidates, we could give 40 families $20,000 each. That would probably have more of an impact than the county's current proposal. Seriously, the county executive race (as well as the other local ones) are going to cost A LOT of money, which, in case you couldn't tell, is something I don't particularly care for.

CA, meet your competition.

Finally, the crime wave continues. Only this time, it's the, uh, non-violent kind (unless, naturally, you're willing to pay more).

Goodbye, and good riddance

Following up on last night's breaking news, Hayduke received his first dispatch from a local correspondent who attended the King's Contrivance Village Board meeting where plans were released for a new grocery store at the local village center.

Before we get to the story, I'd like to take this time to invite everyone reading this to submit via email any stories about the county they feel aren't being adequately covered by our local papers. Of course, I'll retain editorial control over what gets posted, but don't be afraid to throw in commentary with your news; after all, that's what this blog is all about.

Without further ado, here's the report from correspondent Mac Hater (sorry, man, that was the best nickname I could come up with for you; it's pretty true, though).

Last night at the Kings Contrivance Village Board meeting, Kimco Realty presented its plans for the KC Village Center. The most detested Safeway, whose lease expires at the end of June, will not be back. Taking its place will be a new Harris Teeter. The plans are to leave the Village Center intact as it is now without modification (or refurbishment), but the current Safeway and what was (eons ago) the Friendly’s Restaurant will be totally razed. A new, much larger grocery store will be constructed from the ground up on the sites now occupied by the Safeway and the old Friendly’s parking lot.

The loose time frame looks to have the Safeway closing its doors in mid June (as its lease is up on June 30th) and demolition and construction will hopefully begin immediately thereafter. Although they did not provide specific details, Kimco officials suggested that the new store could be open as soon as late Summer 2007. They stressed the importance for opening the new anchor store as quickly as possible to minimize the adverse impact on the smaller shops in the Village Center. There are many loose ends to be worked out with the county, such as traffic and zoning issues, but Kimco feels confident that things will move quickly and does not expect problems. In a brief statement Guy Guzzone pledged his support for the project, affirming its importance to Kings Contrivance Village Center and Howard County.

Kimco officials addressed a number of questions from residents ranging from the location of shopping cart corrals in the parking lots to where the Tractor Trailers will unload.

Harris Teeter has no stores in Maryland but is growing its franchise. There are stores in Ballston & Pentagon City, Virginia, with two more currently under construction in the District of Columbia. Harris Teeter is a full service grocery store. It is more high-end than Safeway or Giant. In addition to providing your usual run of the mill grocery store offerings they will also have a large number of organic and natural products. For example a Harris Teeter official explained that they will have 80-90 organic products in just the produce section alone.


Yum, indeed. This is great news to everyone who hates the Safeway, which is just about everyone who's ever been there.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


To all my southside Columbia readers, I have it on good authority that at tonight's Kings Contrivance Village Board meeting, Kimco, owners of the KC village center, unveiled plans for a new shopping center, including a new grocery store.

If you live in this part of the county (or have read my previous posts decrying the insult that is our current Safeway), you know this is the best news we've had all year.

I've got more details coming soon from a Hayduke Junior Correspondent. Stay tuned!

Changes at the top...

Howard County Republicans will be taking their cues from a new chairman.

Howard County Republicans are entering this unusually active election year with a new leader, after outspoken party Chairman Howard M. Rensin declined to seek a new term.

Rensin said his commercial investment business is booming, taking too much time for him to continue running the party in a year when lively contests are brewing on every level of government.

...Brian Harlin, formerly vice chairman of the party central committee, is the county GOP's new leader. He said the post fits well with what he does for a living.

"Handling campaigns and winning elections is what I do," said Harlin, who owns an Elkridge printing business that specializes in Republican campaign signs and materials. As for Rensin's departure, Harlin said, "I don't see that anyone had a huge problem with Howard."
Sun reporter Larry Carson uses the story to discuss some sharp rhetoric from Rensin following Chris Merdon's ascendancy to the position of County Council Chairman. I criticized Rensin for overly inflammatory statements, and apparently his remarks even drew criticism, albeit off-the-record, from party insiders.

Carson, through his coverage of this story, implies in a roundabout way that Rensin leaving the chairmanship may have had something to do with these comments, an implication that is widely dismissed by GOP insiders and Rensin himself.
"I was told that if I wanted to run for re-election, I would have no opponent," he said, adding that "the job of the party chairman is to rally the base and turn out the base."
Although Republicans would probably like to claim that Carson is demonstrating the Sun's typical liberal bias by rehashing Rensin's past comments, not only are such claims wrong, they're growing increasingly pathetic. Carson, like all reporters, is looking for something juicy to write about. Were a Democrat in a similar position, the story would likely have been written the same way.

Meanwhile, in getting the Democrats' response to this leadership change, Carson finds someone who's out to win Hayduke's support.

Tony McGuffin, vice chair of the county's Democrats, said he welcomes Harlin as GOP chairman.

"We know Brian Harlin," he said, referring to Harlin's run for County Council in 2002 against Rakes. "Hopefully, there will be more positive rhetoric. On the local level, we don't need to act like [they do] on Capitol Hill."

Howard County Republicans, he said, "are our friends and neighbors."

Keeping local politics focused on local issues (and not national identity politics) is one of the main focuses of this blog. McGuffin, presumably the Democrats as a whole, and even Chris Merdon seem to be talking the talk, for now at least. But it's only January, campaigns have hardly begun, and riling up voters is still just a glimmer in the eye of party hacks throughout the county.

Politics can only stay nice for so long.

Aging in isolation

Concerns about a slow-down in the housing market may or may not be warranted, but at least one part of the market is still bubbling.

Cindy Fudge is in an enviable position. She has sold 13 homes, each in six figures, and the models aren't even ready -- and won't be for another three months.

While that pace is sofentening, it seems unlikely she will be stuck with vacant lots.

"We've been well received," says Fudge, the sales representative for the developer, Dale Thompson Builders, at Scot's Glen, a luxury development in the early stages of construction in Columbia. "We have a lot of people who keep calling us."

The development is tapping into the seemingly insatiable market for age-restricted housing -- units limited to people at least 55 years old -- in Howard County.

That segment has been the single largest driving force for the housing industry in the county for the past five years, and officials expect the trend to continue as the so-called baby boomers reach or near retirement. Indeed, the over-55 age group is the fastest-growing category, and it is projected to increase by more than 46,000, to almost 100,000 people, and will comprise almost one-third of the county's population by 2030, twice what it is today.

Wow! That is a lot of old...uh, rather, over-55 people.

The county has made it pretty easy to develop age restricted housing by allowing such uses in many of our zoning districts. And rightly so. Such housing likely generates the same amount of tax revenue as non-age-restricted residential, without adding any expenses to the county's school budget, the biggest piece of our budget pie. Moreover, building housing for seniors who want to age in place reduces the strain on our traditional housing market, which may increase the prospects for new families wishing to make Howard County their home.

Overall, then, over-55 housing seems like a good idea. However, something about the housing doesn't sit right with me, and I've never fully been able to figure out why.

I'm partly concerned about segregating an entire segment of our community into their own, isolated neighborhoods--many of these developments are gated, the antithesis of what Columbia stands for. While isolation from children and the outside world may be what buyers of these houses want, the last thing we need as a society is to further dissociate ourselves from our neighbors, regardless of their age. Alas, the consumer is king and their choices never wrong.

Additionally, we've got to look at our changing community dynamics in context. The Baby Boomers, who are becoming the target market for age-restricted housing, are a bit of a statistical anomaly. When this cohort moves on to a better place, are we going to be looking at a glut of single-story houses in gated communities with overly-restrictive ownership requirements? I'm not sure, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

I'm sure if I spent more time thinking about it, I could come up with more reasons to be skeptical of age-restricted housing's awesomeness. For now, though, this is all I've got, and neither seems to be enough of a worry to stop building such communities, especially given their apparent popularity with buyers.

Connecting the dots...

Columbia's newest village, River Hill, is not really even in Columbia; according to it's ZIP Code, the neighborhood is in Clarksville, making it our satellite village.

Reaching the River Hill via Columbia's internal network of pathways is currently impossible. To be sure, the Columbia Association built paths within the village, but because of a large natural barrier--the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area--there are no connections to the larger system. This may change.

At a recent Columbia Association board of directors meeting, a decision was made to draft a formal letter to Gary J. Arthur, director of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks, asking whether the association could create a pathway system on the county-owned land.

Joshua Feldmark, chairman of the association board, said the issue of connecting River Hill with the rest of Columbia has been raised for several years and was added to a strategic initiative last year.

"It was the board's desire to connect all of Columbia via pathways," Feldmark said, adding that "the coolest thing about Columbia is that you can use the pathways or a sidewalk or two and you can get from one place in Columbia to another."

Not only are the pathways "cool," but they are part of the package that you pay for when buying into Columbia. The annual fees you pay to CA help maintain these paths, and therefore it's only fair that all residents have equal access to the entire network.

That said, one has to wonder why a connection was never planned for River Hill, despite the village always being a part of the Columbia vision. This lack of foresight is especially troubling given the difficulty of bridging the distance (and river) between the satellite and the mainland.

This week, Chick Rhodehamel, Columbia Association vice president for open-space management, mentioned the difficulty of building the pathways system on conservation land.

"The environmental area is a sensitive area, and you just can't go and add asphalt there," he said.

Unfortunately, the environment many not be the only, um, pathblock.

Arthur said plans for building a pathways system on the land would require discussions with the Middle Patuxent Environmental Foundation, the group assigned to oversee the land.

..."It has to be discussed with the foundation, and we have to look at funding within the county capital budget," he said.

"And it has to go through the county executive and council," Arthur added.

So, in addition to environmental issues, the path would need approval from the county and the Middle Patuxent Environmental Foundation before being built. Add to this laundry list the facts that such a path would be very expensive and probably underutilized, and the outlook for the connection grows dimmer.

Sorry, River Hill, but at least you have the nicest gym.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Digital HoCo

Hayduke welcomes another Howard County blogger to the 'sphere. Unfortunately, the new blog is named "Howard County Blog," which is the same name as another blog that had been inactive for several months but has recently been updated with posts about the executive race, the smoking bill, and the Football Team Worthiest of Irrational Loathing.

There has been a link to the first Howard County Blog since the dawn of time (for this site, anyway); so the new one is going to have to go by HoCo Blog in my Links section on the right (the two of them are more than welcome to battle each other for naming rights, and I'll gladly rename my links accordingly).

HoCo Blog seems to be focused on the charrette, although his tag line ("A Blog on what is going on in Howard County") promises a broader range of topics. In only a week, he's already posted several pictures--an impressive rookie-blogging accomplishment if ever there was one. Go check him out.

Despite my ultra-competitive nature, I don't view these blogs as competition. To the contrary, they'll help inform my writing and I hope to help inform theirs. The goals of this whole blogging thing are, or at least should be, to make information more available and to foster discussion. So, I say, the more the merrier.

On a related front, a group of entrepreneurial teenagers appear to be starting an on-line magazine. See, not all teenagers are spending their free time doing whatever it is we're scared of them doing nowadays.