Friday, June 30, 2006

Who am I?

I found myself asking that question this morning after reading this:

Two candidates for the Howard County state delegation called for more local housing, while another said no to more newcomers as the county braces for the job explosion at Fort Meade.

Howard County has a limit of 1,750 new residential units per year. Pressure from the relocation of 5,300 defense jobs to Fort Meade because of the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) initiative could create an increased demand — and price tag — for these houses.

“We should loosen up” the limit, said Del. Gail Bates, R-District 13, at a candidates’ forum Wednesday. “As demand increases, our homes are going to be less affordable.”

The average new house in Howard County is $650,000.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, D-District 12B, said increasing housing is not the answer.

“Are we saying we want as many people as possible to move to Howard County? That would be a mistake,” Bobo said. “As people move here, schools will be a big social issue.”
Judging from what I've said in the past about affordable housing, my views seem more in line with (gasp!) the Republicans than my own party (at least according to this two person sample, anyway). Couple this with the fact that I'm sounding like Steve Forbes and my whole perspective on the world has just been turned upside down.

Seriously, I'm sure Bobo has ideas about how to create more affordable housing in Howard County, but the Examiner's stories, which are more like blurbs, rarely provide the opportunity for one to expand on the nuances of an issue. That said, Democrats definitely need to do a better job of providing ideas for affordable housing, which is component of what should be one of our party's core principles -- namely, ensuring help is there for those who need it most.

We must not abandon this principle -- even at the local level -- for the sake of expedience.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A couple questions...

I'm trying to get a million (well, maybe, like, 10) things done before I got out of town on Saturday and I don't have time for much writing these next two days. So, I'll just post a few questions and see what happens.

The first comes to us from a letter to the editor in today's Howard County Times. There were three similar letters (and the cynical side of me thinks they may have been related/coordinated), but only one writer offered some possible solutions to our county's zoning problems.

Mr. Ulman says he needs ideas. How about these: 1) Hire an attorney to represent the citizens of Howard County through their associations to make sure the zoning laws that exist are followed. 2) The zoning board might actually consult with the public and listen to what the public wants. 3) Once zoning decisions are made, make sure that the developers and the county follow them.
Well, what do you think?

My quickie take is that 2 and 3 aren't really specific enough to be considered solutions but are instead good guiding principles that to a large extent already exist (but this is subjective and I'm sure some of you will disagree -- our experiences are different). Meanwhile, the first one presents a host of problems that I think doom the idea; for instance, how do we decide which groups get representation and for which cases? Seems like the answers to these questions would be a full-course meal for cynics.

Finally, I've been thinking a lot about the home mortgage interest deduction.

What if we just got rid of it?

Total federal spending on housing assistance for poor people (less than $20 billion) is dwarfed in comparison to the amount of tax revenue forgone each year (around $120 billion last I checked) because of these deductions, and that's to say nothing of the impact it has on home prices and development in general. And it covers houses worth up to $1 million.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ben Folds and the BSO...

An interesting night at Merriweather. Piano rocker Ben Folds and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The pavilion was full and there was a decent crowd on the lawn. It was, not surprisingly, a very non-raucous evening.

Which is not to say there was an absence of rocking out, however.

A referendum denied...

This has surely upset several people…

A citizens referendum challenging scores of rezoning cases has suffered a major, and perhaps fatal, setback now that Maryland's second-highest court has invalidated the ballot measure on grounds that it gave residents too little information about what the measure would do.

The decision, by a three-judge panel of the state Court of Special Appeals, will stand without a successful last-minute appeal to the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court. Because the referendum was scheduled for the November ballot, the case is being handled on an expedited basis, giving the Howard County Board of Elections until July 6 to appeal.

…The ruling by the Court of Special Appeals, made June 21, addresses neither the county's process nor its approval of the rezoning cases, but only whether citizens were properly informed of Comp Lite's provisions when signing a petition seeking the referendum.

Maryland law, the judges wrote in their opinion, requires that a referendum petition contain either an accurate summary of the provisions being challenged or the full text of the legislation enacting the zoning changes.
I’ve always thought petitions were somewhat suspect. Legal notifications aside, it seems to me that many people sign petitions almost reflexively or in an effort to placate the person holding the clipboard.

Regardless of my petition misgivings, it’s not surprising that adequately informing signers of the Comp Lite referendum presented problems.
The Comp Lite legislation, approved by the County Council last year, contains 38 separate and distinct map amendments and 49 pages of text amendments, totaling 91 pages, the court's opinion notes.

The opinion also points out that the organizers of the petition drive had considerable difficulty in writing a summary of the Comp Lite provisions. The Board of Elections, the court noted, rejected their first five attempts as legally insufficient.

In the final version, the organizers used essentially the title of the Comp Lite legislation, which the board accepted.

Even that language, critics of the ballot measure claimed, was "not comprehensive in scope" and thus could not meet state requirements. The court agreed. "We conclude . . . [the petition] does not satisfy the 'fair and accurate summary' requirement imposed by state law," the three-judge panel ruled.

Was there something prohibiting the petitioners from attaching a copy of the legislation to the petition forms? To be sure, a 91-page report is a lot to carry around on a clipboard, but it would guarantee that your signatures pass muster, right?

Well, I’m not sure how I feel about this. While I wasn’t necessarily a supporter of this (or really any, for that matter) referendum, I’m sympathetic to COPE and others who worked so hard to get signatures and put the Comp Lite decision up to the voters. That said, I did find this bit revealing:
Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., who wrote the opinion, said previous courts have held that the public must be informed of whether rezoning "upzoned" or "downzoned" property, and he noted that the petition's summary failed to tell voters that few of the Comp Lite cases were controversial and faced no opposition from nearby residents.
I understand that it’s hard to engage potential signers in a lengthy discussion about the good and bad parts of Comp Lite and certainly when you’re advocating you want to paint your side in the best possible light. But laws like these serve to ensure that those with only a momentary interest in an issue at least have some objective idea of what's going on.

Meanwhile, here’s a round up of reactions from various players.
"I've been saying this all along," said County Councilman Charles C. Feaga. "This decision is a good one. I hope it stands."

But Angela Beltram, a former councilwoman and a principal in the organization that pushed the ballot measure, said future referendums would be jeopardized if the ruling is not overturned.

…"The Board of Elections approved it, and it seems to me they have to appeal," she said. "I hope they would appeal, or when are you going to have a referendum?"

Frank Martin, a frequent critic of the county's planning process, denounced the ruling.

"How are my rights being fairly represented by this decision?" he asked. "The clear majority knew exactly what they were signing. ... I don't know what will happen ... but COPE has learned, don't fight city hall. We're all learning that the hard way."
There’s definitely some anger. Is it, given the circumstances, warranted? To whom will it ultimately be directed? How will this affect the elections?

For the best take on this whole thing, let's turn to the most maligned bureaucrat in the county.

Regardless of the outcome, Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said she believes the county and public will benefit from the controversy.

"For better or for worse, it has called a lot of attention to the planning process," she said. "I think you'll see changes that will make the process more transparent."

Always look on the bright side of life...

Finally, Howard County Blog’s entry on this topic is a rundown of irrelevant quotes by Ken Ulman, yet no mention of Feaga’s quotes, which are actually relevant to this story and when compared to what Ulman said in the past are abjectly anti-citizen. But as a newly-potential candidate for Republican Central Committee, one must not risk offending any true blue party-mates. Combine this with his absurd posting of a commenter’s even more absurd conspiracy theory and it’s a good old fashioned Ken Ulman bashing over there today.

So much for treating everyone equally poorly, eh?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Don't you just love this weather?

I’m being totally serious.

Storms like this only happens once every few decades, we should enjoy it or at least stand in awe of it while it’s here. Sure, bad weather disrupts our lives, causes headaches, and all that bad stuff, but it also helps you appreciate the incredible forces of nature.

Over 8 inches of rain in Columbia since Sunday (as of this morning). That so much moisture can be squeezed out of our atmosphere is such a short time is mind boggling, is it not? And there’s more on the way!

On a related note, combining this storm with the February snowstorm and the big rain we had last October, is Columbia becoming a “sweet spot” for precipitation? In each of the three cases, we got wetter (or snowier) than almost every other spot in the DC/Baltimore region. I know three data points does not a trend (or even a sample) make, but seemingly minor, localized phenomena can often have significant effects on rainfall rates, making it not entirely unreasonable to think there’s something about this area (topography, perhaps) that contributes to our higher-than-the-regional-average precipitation totals for individual storms.

Just conjecture.

Anyway, I just wanted to say today that, while I will try to post something everyday this week, the posts will likely be short. I’ve got a lot to do before leaving Saturday for a vacation (during which I’ll probably put up a few posts and pictures).

See post below for an ongoing discussion about growth and stuff.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Banana Pancakes

"Can't you see that it's just raining. There ain't no need to go outside."

It's a good day to make some banana pancakes, if you haven't already.

Anyway, the news is slow. There are the requisite Lake Elkhorn tot lot stories, including one about the CA board's decision to not make a decision. Also, take note, non-Columbians: CA does not want to hear from you.

Then, there's the issue of what we call senior housing. And finally, a three-page profile on the owners of seemingly every office building in Howard County.

Reading these stories produced no sparks for me. And when blogging, it's all about the spark.

There was, however, some spark on Friday while I was doing some research for work.

I've been thinking about this post and the responses to it a lot the past few days. Despite arguments to the contrary, I still think we have growth pretty well controlled in this county. However, this assertion rests on my assumption that growth is inevitable, that we're never going to not grow in some form or another -- at least on the county level. On the global level, it would be nice if we strove towards a more ecological, sustainable, develop-rather-than-grow economy (shoutout to an old professor), but I don't think the Howard County Executive or Council has much say on that.

As for what we do have a say in, here is a rundown of the county's average annual growth rates for the last 50 years.

1950 - 1960: 4.57%
1960 - 1970: 5.53%
1970 - 1980: 6.71%
1980 - 1990: 4.68%
1990 - 2000: 2.84%
2000 - 2005: 1.85%

This list and the story about school non-overcrowding are what I back my claim that growth seems fairly well controlled.

But whether growth is controlled or not was only the subject of half of that post. The other half discussed housing affordability and the impact county growth policies have on housing prices. I argued that limiting supply accounts for at least some of the increases in price. And here's what I found at work on Friday from the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies' new report, The State of the Nation's Housing 2006:

While explanations vary, evidence is mounting that the two principal forces behind housing affordability problems are restrictions on residential development and the growth in low-wage and part-time employment. Local land use regulations that limit lot size and density have helped to drive up housing prices and rents relative to incomes. As a result, affordability problems are most acute in housing markets with the strictest land use regulations.
Just some food for thought. Now time for some pancakes.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Slow day...or so I thought...

...Until, thanks to David Wissing, I found out that Doug Duncan has dropped out of the race for governor. In announcing his decision, Duncan admitted that he was recently diagnosed with clinical depression, which he has been struggling with for the past year.

Although I was leaning towards O'Malley anyway, I can't say that I'm in any way happy about this news. Depression is a terrible disease that goes untreated far too often. That Duncan has campaigned this long under its grip is admirable; his decision to seek treatment is even more so. Maybe it inspires someone who's almost given up to find help, or maybe it changes the antiquated mind of someone who still believes those suffering from depression are just "moody."

While Duncan's exit is certainly best for him, it's bad for Maryland voters, even those already staunchly aligned with one of the candidates. We benefit from debate, especially debates within parties. The rhetoric, the politics, the posturing, the attacks, now they will all be so predictable, so devoid of substance, so mindlessly partisan. Alas.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Growth controlled?

Controlling growth is a messy, contentious exercise, full of unintended consequences and counterintuitive outcomes. Which is why I’m heartened to read this:

The latest enrollment projections, beginning in 2009, forecast only Manor Woods Elementary will be chronically overcrowded, or "closed," meaning home construction will be sharply restricted in that part of western Howard County.

And that school is expected to slip into the "open" category the next year because of an expansion program that will add room for 100 more seats.

While officials might never formally declare victory over the problem, their progress in easing school overcrowding in the past six years has been extraordinary.

Two factors have driven the improvements:

  • A sharp reduction in the rate of growth in the schools. For the academic year just concluded, for instance, there were 350 more students, compared with about 1,900 a year the system had in the 1990s.
  • An aggressive, multimillion-dollar expansion program that will have produced eight schools in as many years.

What’s not said in that first bullet is that reductions in school attendance growth is a direct result of drastic reductions in the rate of residential growth.

I’m well aware that these are projections and they are bound to change, but as a preliminary signal, the data indicate that growth in Howard County – despite perceptions to the contrary – is pretty well under control.

And, with respect to school overcrowding, our growth control measures – namely, the allocation limits – should be applauded. However, to say they have been unmitigated successes fails to acknowledge the broader, unintended side of things.

While we’ve made things better for students today – classes are less crowded, teachers can spend more individual time with them, etc – tomorrow could be a different story. Although many will move away, those who decide to stay in Howard might look back and wonder if lower enrollments were worth the tradeoffs.

When discussing growth controls, it’s easy to point out why they’re good: less traffic, less students in our schools (or decreased need for new schools), less degradation of “natural” land.

But what the negative side of things? “Residential units,” in the parlance of planners, are in reality homes for families that want to be a part of our community -- not traffic-generating, child-producing earth destroyers. When we restrict residential growth, we restrict entry into our community, perhaps to the point of keeping out people we’d otherwise value as neighbors. Growth restrictions don’t just limit the construction of new units, they increase the prices of existing ones.

I’ve long tried to point out the connection between our growing affordable housing problem and our growth control measures on this site. To be sure, a significant portion of the increased unaffordability of housing was the result of a super hot real estate market, which has since cooled. And though the affordability issue over the last few years was illustrated dramatically by these rapidly rising home prices, the problem will continue to simmer, albeit with less dramatic anecdotes, until something meaningful is actually done, which, fortunately (hopefully), could be soon:
The Robey administration is taking one more stab at the complex problem of providing affordable housing at a time of sky-high home prices with a 25-member citizens task force named yesterday. 

The group is to come up with creative suggestions by Nov. 1 -- one month before County Executive James N. Robey leaves office.

Robey said the failure to find ways of providing homes that low- and middle-income people can afford was his "greatest disappointment" after his first term in office and remains so today.

Prices for all ranges of housing have more than doubled since 2001, he said yesterday at a news conference, and only about 5 percent of the homes for sale in Howard are affordable for nearly half the county's households.

His efforts to raise salaries for police officers, firefighters, teachers and other county employees have not helped them find homes they can buy where they work, he acknowledged.

"The more they earned, the more housing costs increased," he said. Now, with the federal base-closing program due to bring thousands of new employees to Central Maryland, the impetus to do something is also greater, he said.

Of course, a similar task force last year basically accomplished nothing. But, perhaps, the community will wasn’t strong enough then, whereas now it might be. Or maybe the committee make-up was all wrong. Whatever the case, I’m optimistic that this committee will make good on its charge.

My hope, as it has always been with respect to affordable housing, is that we don’t settle for small things, for marginal increases in percentage set asides or miniscule, developer-funded “trust funds.” Instead of targeted, small-minded approaches, we need to address affordable housing not as an issue separate from growth, but as an integral part of our entire housing and community development landscape. As such, the committee, I believe, must address the impact controlling growth (i.e. limiting supply) has had housing affordability. Perhaps they can even recommend changes to the process that will bring about positive results – without cramming our schools.

More housing, with some zoning on the side...

I'm really not sure how I feel about this...

A Howard County council member hopes to dispel fears tonight that his plan to create affordable housing at the Guilford Gardens complex in Columbia could leave some without a home.

If a bill sponsored by Council Member Calvin Ball, D-District 2, is passed, 100 town houses and apartments rented by low- and moderate-income residents will be converted into affordable condominiums for purchase.

“If they want to capture the dream of home ownership, they can,” Ball said.

But, “this is one of the few affordable developments left in Howard County for moderate-income families. That’s important to protect,” said Esther Drake, president of the Guilford Gardens board.

Residents who can’t or don’t want to purchase the units will have to move, said Leonard Vaughan, director of the county department of housing and community development. Renters can stay for at least five more years, and the county would help them relocate.
On one hand, I think it’s great to extend the benefits of homeownership to as many as possible, especially if it can be done in a neighborhood they know and like. On the other, affordable rental housing is as scarce as homeownership opportunities are and I’m wary about removing these homes from the rolls if there is not a plan to replace them. Also, there are some people for whom owning a home is a bad idea, and we shouldn’t marginalize them because homeownership has become an overarching American value.

What do you think?

Meanwhile, this sounds like a bad idea...

A simmering controversy over a proposed office building next to the historic Woodlawn Manor in Columbia is now a fierce fight between a developer and preservationists -- with Howard County Council members in the middle.

The focal point of the clash is a bill that would allow office buildings or their parking lots to be 10 feet from open space or multifamily developments instead of 30 feet, which is the current standard. If the bill passes, it would apply countywide, though the current argument is over one project. The County Council is to vote July 3.

County planners believe the bill is a way to push a building to be located off Bendix Road a bit farther from a historic house and closer to a nearby industrial building. But preservationists emphatically disagree.

Doesn't our open space system already put up with enough from us? And why throw in multifamily developments? Are residents there less worthy of adequate setbacks than the rest of us?

Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, also assailed the bill as overkill -- changing setback standards countywide when a specific waiver for this one project might be more appropriate.

"What eludes us is why the council would even consider this bill," she said. "Rewriting law to address a single site design issue for a single property is bad business. It is the slippery slope to bad planning and zoning."

That's my concern, too. Why change everything for this one site? Why not just grant a waiver for this property and be done with it?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tuesday Round Up: Truncated Edition...

Nothing good ever happens in an introduction, so let’s just get on with it…


When I first read this headline -- "“Lawyer drops his client accused of cheating the elderly, disabled" --– I thought," “wow, a defense attorney with a sense of morality."” Then, I read that the lawyer in question represented Linda Tripp, and I thought, “"OK, everyone makes mistakes."” Then, I read this: "“'The defendant has failed to make any effort to satisfy the financial obligation that he agreed to ... .' [Attorney Josheph] Murtha wrote.”" Turns out the guy accused of scamming money from seniors and disabled people wrote his lawyer a bad check. I'm neither surpsied nor saddened by this development.

HoCoBlog is asking readers "Who will be the next county executive?" Vote here. The results, thus far, are pretty surprising.

And now, a few off topic things that caught my eye...

Not that it really matters to shoppers in our county, but Whole Foods is going to stop selling lobsters and soft shell crabs because, according to The Sun " it “could not guarantee the crustaceans are treated humanely on their journey from ship to supermarket aisle."” Ha! Does this mean that plucking a lobster from its natural habitat and throwing it -- alive -- into a boiling pot of water counts as "humane" treatment?

Finally, as if you needed it, another reason why dogs are better than cats.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Taxing fairness...

Among the myriad impediments to creating an even remotely adequate supply of affordable housing in Howard County, one stands out for being dumb...and unfair.

An idea to lower the property tax burden for buyers of subsidized homes in Howard County has support from several candidates for county executive and the County Council.

The proposal, backed by the Association of Community Services (ASC), an umbrella group of 150 social service and health agencies, would have homebuyers under the county's Moderate Income Housing Unit program pay property taxes on just the portion of the house that they own - typically 51 percent to 60 percent. The county Housing Commission owns the rest.

Buyers now pay taxes on the full market price of the house, a heavy burden in Howard's high-price real estate market.
Yes, that's really how the system works. Families own half the house, the government owns the other half, and yet they're forced to pay the government's share of taxes, even though by qualifying for the program the government has acknowledged that they could not afford a house without assistance. Although the homeowners in this program enjoy the full use of their house, the real benefit of homeownership -- wealth creation -- is something they have to split with the county upon selling it.

All the taxes, half the returns.

Why shouldn’t the county also be liable for its share of taxes, especially considering the large tax bill some homeowners face?
A recently sold home in the program included a monthly mortgage of $1,448, plus real estate taxes of $375 a month, according to county housing officials. The change could cut that tax bill nearly in half.
In this case, the homeowner was paying more than $1,800 a month for housing (affordablilty is clearly relative), but could have reduced those payments by almost $200 if the county paid its fair share. I don't know anyone who couldn't use an extra $200 a month.

The good news is: changing this backwards provision seems to have support from public officials.
"I think it's a great idea," Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat running for county executive, said at a candidates forum on human services last week in Columbia.

… [O]thers, including independent executive candidate C. Stephen Wallis, Republican council candidates Tony Salazar and Gina Ellrich and Democratic council candidates such as Mary Kay Sigaty and Joshua Feldmark, said they support the concept.

"It seems fair to me for us to support such an initiative," Wallis said.
Unfortunately, it doesn't enjoy unanimous support.
Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican candidate for county executive, said after the meeting that he would have to study the issue.

"Property taxes are to pay for services," he said. "We have to pay for our services somehow."

He also stressed his support in a housing bill approved by the council June 5 for allowing lower-income people to qualify for moderate-income housing.
This argument would carry more weight if we actually had a large supply of affordable housing. But considering the housing program has only been around for a few years and in that time it has had a minimal impact on affordability (read: it has produced a handful -- again, relative -- of houses), I don't think allowing residents to pay taxes only on what they actually own is going to have a noticable effect on county revenue.

However, at least Merdon supported a housing bill that lowers the income threshold for particiaption in the program, a measure that gives us a larger pool of qualified applicants who won't be able to afford their affordable house after the tax man visits.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Laziest Post Ever...

Because of musical commitments, I got home really late last, early this morning. The bright sun, meanwhile, also got up really early this morning, and despite the favorable orientation of my bedroom window, reflected rays brightened my day far earlier than I hoped.

After fumbling around for a while, I read a host of great articles in The Sun today that I wanted to say something about, even just a sentence or two (ala Round Up). Alas, my prolonged fumbling and decreased mental capacity made it difficult to accomplish this goal in the time allotted, and now it's time for me to leave.

So, I'll put it on you. Any thoughts on the stories in today's Sun? As for me, I like that the paper has finally named Larry Carson's weekly column. They chose "On Politics," while I'm sticking with the name I gave it months ago: "Politics, Shmolitics." Also, the county government's harassment of The Pack Shack, Ellicott City's "adult bookstore," is more unseemly than the establishment itself.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Wishful thinking...

It's been almost exactly three years since a friend of mine -- who happens to hate Macs -- and I sat on his deck and decided to rouse some rabble in hopes of keeping Merriweather Post Pavilion open. As part of this long strange trip, we talked often in public and private about what's wrong with Town Center, and Columbia/Howard County in general. Many of these discussions focused on what's missing.

To be sure, there is plenty of stuff that we should have but don't. And our conversations often came back to something that was emblematic of our plight and our (well, my) preferences. Namely, a place where I can buy guitar strings.

You see, I play guitar with the same finesse and delicacy of a jackhammer crunching pavement. As such, I'm frequently changing and, by extension, buying strings. In order to meet this need, however, I'm forced to drive to Catonsville -- like I did today -- which inexplicably has three places that sell high quality guitar strings (Martin SP 80/20 bronze Mediums, please) within walking distance of each other. Howard County, on the other hand, has none that I have found in 15 years of living and playing music here (Music and Arts Center doesn't count -- their prices are twice that of a reputable dealer).

I'm sure you can say something about the free market and a lack of demand. But, come on, we've got almost 300,000 people living in this county, there has to be enough musicians in the mix to support such a store (I, alone, could keep them afloat with my string purchases, at least for a time).

But that's just me. What about you? What type of businesses or attractions do you think we should have but don't?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Ring any bells?

Beneath a BRAC story in the Post today is this little blurb:

In trying to create a more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly Town Center, General Growth Properties Inc. is getting its inspiration from places near and far.

The Chicago-based mall developer, which owns most of Town Center's undeveloped and commercial properties, has visited towns comparable in size to Columbia from Charlottesville to Racine, Wis. -- to gather ideas, said Douglas Godine, the vice president and general manager overseeing Columbia's development and redevelopment.

"We're trying to collect a repository of what works," Godine said at a meeting of the Columbia Association board last week. "Some of those things may not work at all."

Since General Growth purchased the Rouse Co. nearly two years ago, it has been engaged in a spirited debate about downtown's future. Godine said the company is setting up a panel of experts in various disciplines to generate ideas for Town Center. The task force should be meeting in two to four months, and some of those meetings will be public, Godine said.

First, I really like that they’re looking elsewhere to see what works and what doesn’t. Nothing good every comes out of a vacuum (trust me, I’ve looked).

More intriguing, however, is the part I’ve bolded. Does that sound familiar? I know it’s taboo to say nice things about General Growth, but using the “panel of experts in various disciplines” approach -- the same one that Jim Rouse used in planning Columbia -- is a good move on their part. I think it shows that maybe, perhaps a little, the old Rouse principles survive. Godine, after all, was around back then, too.

So, do these efforts garner GGP at least a little good will or a little more trust from the community?

I would say so. But I’ve also been called an apologist.

What say you?

Endorsements for all...

Now this is just silly

The Howard County teachers union wanted to endorse Democrat Guy Guzzone in his bid for a seat in the House of Delegates, but state union rules wouldn't allow it.

Instead, the union is endorsing one of Guzzone's opponents, incumbent Del. Neil Quinter, also a Democrat.
See. I told you. Now, what's the cause of this silliness?
When the Howard union submitted its endorsements to the state union, state officials denied Guzzone's endorsement. A Maryland State Teachers Association policy dictates that incumbents receive the union's automatic endorsement if the incumbents' voting record falls in line with the union's agenda, De Lacy said.

Quinter won the endorsement because 94 percent of his votes supported the union's legislative agenda, De Lacy said. Pendergrass and Turner also won endorsements with union-friendly voting records of 100 percent and 94 percent, respectively, De Lacy said.

"I argued for (Guzzone) for about an hour, but I didn't get my way," she added. "Guy Guzzone has been extremely kind to us. We want everyone to know that even though we can't officially endorse him, we're going to do everything we can to let people know we support him."

Quotes from Guzzone and Quinter make it sound like they’re both taking this well. What lies beneath the surface, I’m sure, is a whole other story.

Good intentions, bad ideas...

An editorial in the Flier today applauds Democrats for not rushing with their proposed changes to the zoning process. Then, there’s this:

We have long advocated reworking the way the county does its zoning, including the long-overdue move of creating a Zoning Board that does not comprise the members of the council. Having that much power in the hands of five people is a detriment to the public good.
I hear this a lot, that the county council should no longer serve as the zoning board. The main argument goes councilmen take money from developers during campaigns and then approve developer projects as the zoning board, creating a possible conflict of interest. I’m sympathetic to this argument -- there appearance of impropriety is there – but I’m not convinced that removing the zoning board role from the council will do any good. In fact, I think it could be bad. Very bad.

Where would the Zoning Board’s powers go? To the Planning Board? To another, not-yet-established body? An independent zoning officer? The one problem all of these share is that they lack public accountability. Members are not voted into office. They are appointed.

As unseemly as it may seem to have elected representatives (who get contributions from developers) make zoning decisions, leaving such decisions up to the will of a board that has no incentive – and often no desire – to listen to citizens is several orders of magnitude worse. It’s undemocratic and antithetical to an open, community-driven zoning and development process.

Unless we’re talking about replacing the Zoning Board with another elected body, which is full of pitfalls of its own, removing the County Council from this important oversight position diminishes the role citizens play as well.

More on the fence...

David Wissing has the best summary of the whole Lake Elkhorn tot lot fence imbroglio that I’ve seen.

Meanwhile, the Post and Flier have stories today, and the Flier’s editorial includes this gem:

Anyone who wants to know why many Columbians have little confidence in the board of directors at the Columbia Association need look no further than the board's nonsensical decision to rip out the playground on the north shore of Lake Elkhorn and move it to a site near the Hopewell pool.

The board has now spent nine months spinning its wheels on a decision that should have taken far less time.

And, it got that decision about as wrong as it could.
The editors are certainly not holding back, as they shouldn’t. The more I think about this, the more stupid it seems. And the post vote posturing from some of the board members just doesn't make things better.

Oh wait, then there’s more:
With public outcry intensifying after the no-fence decision, the board, in what must have been an outburst of either petulance or irrationality, decided to move the playground altogether, a decision that would cost many times more than it would to install a sturdy and aesthetically acceptable fence.
Petulant. That’s just about the most perfect use of an adjective I have ever seen.

At this point, CA can quell most of the outrage by building the fence. But this whole process, particularly the vote early last Friday morning, won't soon be forgotten.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

(Zoning) Knowlege is power...

At the root of our ineffective zoning system is a failure to effectively engage and include citizens. If we could only get citizens more informed, more involved and the process more open, many other concerns likely could be put to bed.

But how?

Things like public notification about zoning cases in their neighborhood would help. So would improved signage. So would more convenient meeting times. And all of these are addressed in the Democrats’ zoning change proposal, even though the provision for creating community planning districts has been dropped (for now).

All of these are cosmetic changes that would make participation somewhat easier for the stretched-thin masses, but wouldn’t fundamentally alter the way citizens participate. Citizens would still be left reacting, fighting and, most likely, marginalized.

A major impediment to increasing involvement is the amount of time required just to monitor development in Howard County. The papers do a good job of covering the controversies and the Department of Planning and Zoning website has a lot of good, if somewhat disparate, information, but despite the availability of this, connecting and collecting all of it can be a full-time job, especially if what’s going on in your neighborhood is not one of the hot-button issues, like Town Center.

Groups like COPE, Howard County Citizens Association, League of Women Voters, Preservation Howard County and others are effective at conveying relevant information to their constituencies, but there is still a large portion of the county not involved with any of these groups. What’s more, the information is still compartmentalized and disconnected.

Which is why I think we should strive to create something like this in Howard County.

The site is, a New York City Planning Information Portal, and it was constructed by an NYU graduate student. On this site, visitors can access all of the relevant information about planning and development in the city. This information – news articles, planning documents, meeting calendars and other resources – is available on a neighborhood specific format. That is, you can type in your address and with one click learn about all that is happening, development-wise, in your area.

Clearly, we don’t have an urban planning school of graduate students capable of building and maintaining such a site for us. So, the model doesn’t fit perfectly for us. But we do have a need for this and I’m sure the will to make it happen exists, whether in the nonprofit sector or as a project for the county to oversee.

Take a tour of the site and let me know what you think.

My take is that this planning portal should be just the beginning of how utilize technology – particularly the web – to better engage and inform citizens. In the near future, I can envision interactive features that allow citizens to engage in planning from their homes, similar to Sim City (only real); coupled with the county's publicly available GIS mapping features, this could actually make planning and participation fun. Short of that, we could also make it easier for citizens to comment on zoning cases by creating online forums, a county planning blog, and perhaps allow for testimony to be submitted via the web.

What else?

Wednesday Round Up: Flag Day Edition...

No intro today. Too many news items.

Tower Appeal Denied: Something tells me this isn’t the end of the fight, however. And that "something" would be the words of one of those bringing the appeal. 

Not that it matters, but: The Columbia Association Board of Directors is hosting a meeting tonight to get feedback from residents, after deciding to remove the Lake Elkhorn tot lot. Funny, I always thought there were no “redoes” in life. I guess I didn't learn everything I needed to know in Kindergarden.

PATH Recap: Discussions of the first meeting of People Acting Together in Howard, attended by over 400 people (wow!), are available from The Sun and The Examiner. An affiliation of several groups – mostly churches – PATH will spend the summer focusing on issues related to youth, transportation and affordable housing. They will present their findings and proposals at a meeting on October 8. I’m not aware of a website for the group but will post a link as soon (if) I find one.

It’s about time: As part of its effort to connect our existing pathways, Howard County has received over $300,000 from the state’s Transportation Enhancement Program, which funds non-traditional transportation projects like pathways. The first project to be built is a 4,000-foot path along the west side of Broken Land Parkway, from the southern intersection with Cradlerock to Snowden River Parkway. The path will then cross BLP and head north along the east side to Lake Elkhorn.

I say it’s about time because as I was driving by there the other day I noticed a Howard Transit bus stop on a grassy island between BLP, SRP, and an exit ramp. There are no sidewalks to this stop and obviously no crosswalks. It struck me as just about the stupidest place for a bus stop ever, and I’m glad to see this pathway will at least make it a little less dangerous for riders to catch their bus.

So long, farewell: Kings Contrivance bids farewell to the Safeway that no one – except an anonymous commenter – seemed to like.

Funny intro, predictable politics: State Senator Sandy Schrader has the style, but there’s little substance, besides the usual Democrats-just-want-to-raise-your-taxes, in her anti-Robey claims. Of course in politics, like with most things, style is what matters most.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

COPE Awards...

Although I attended the COPE Forum last night, I don’t have that much to say about it. So instead of trying to string together a narrative in the short amount of time I have now, I’ll just give out a few awards:

Most Newsworthy Item: Ken Ulman announced that he would not be introducing legislation this month to change the comprehensive rezoning process but will wait until the community has had more time to discuss possible changes our universally loathed system. He repeatedly emphasized, however, our need to exchange ideas, not just criticism, something he has received a lot of since announcing his proposal.

Most Appropriate Comments Given the Setting: Chris Merdon stressed repeatedly the fact that he voted against comp lite. Since this forum was sponsored by an organization that formed in response to perceived comp lite injustices, COPE, he could say exactly what they wanted to hear, at least on that issue.

Best Bipartisan Moment: A question was asked about conflicting rezoning votes for the same parcel. Apparently, Ulman voted in favor a rezoning a certain property in the comp lite process but voted against it during a subsequent piecemeal case. He mentioned that it was because the processes and criteria are different depending on the type of rezoning petition. Merdon’s response reiterated almost exactly what Ulman said.

Worst Bipartisan Moment: Merdon read aloud an email from a prominent elected Democrat – but didn’t mention her name – that was highly critical of Ulman’s zoning proposal. I read this email earlier in the day, as I received it from a listserv I subscribe to. I had always thought that discussions on this listserv were for members of the group only. Does that mean I can now start quoting these messages on this site? I don’t like the precedent.

Most Entertaining Aspect: Harry Dunbar.

Rudest Moment: Ulman was interrupted by an audience member when responding to a question about the Plaza tower in Town Center. I think he handled it well. He wasn’t rude in reply and he corrected he heckler’s misperceptions about the issue.

Most Insightful and Possibly Prescient Comment: Though I didn’t stay long into the council candidate portion, I was struck by something Joshua Feldmark said. In commenting about needed changes to the zoning process, he discussed his efforts as a CA Board Member to improve the governance process and allow for more citizen involvement. Ultimately, the reforms failed in large part because the process for changing the process was broken. This experience, I think, will serve him well if given the chance to work for changes to our planning and zoning system.

Monday, June 12, 2006

COPE Forum Tonight...

I'm heading out the door to attend the Citizens for an Open Process for Everyone (COPE) forum, which will feature candidates for county executive and the county council. I can't promise that I'll have something up about it tonight, but definitely tomorrow.

Meanwhile, a snide link (that I've since removed) in my global warming post generated a response from the linked. I've since gone back and forth with his commenters. Clearly, we've still got a ways to go before we've won the hearts and minds.

Also, a commenter posed an interesting question about Kyoto that I don't have time to answer in depth. But I will say this. The movie definitely makes a case for the US signing it, but that's not the bigger message, which is that individuals can make their own changes and have an impact. The second thing about Kyoto I'll say is that I think it represents pragmatism run amok.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Way off topic...

Not immediately relevant to Howard County, but worth sharing nonetheless.

I went last night to see An Inconvenient Truth, the film profiling Al Gore's efforts to spread the word about climate change. Perhaps you've heard of it?

As someone who has studied (and taught) the science behind global warming and voted for Gore (and would do it again in a heartbeat), I'm obviously not an impartial reviewer. Still, it is a movie that everyone should see, even the converted but especially the non-converted (at least those willing to listen and put their ignorance aside for a couple hours).

In case you didn't know, the documentary follows Gore as he presents his climate change slide show around the world. The slide show is one that he has given 1,000 times for over a decade, and it has been regularly updated with the latest science (in some of the scenes, he presents rarely seen or previously unreleased data, many from as recent as 2005). It also includes several personal asides from Gore that many say make him finally look human. Of course, the awful conventional wisdom about Robot Gore was never really true to begin with, but that's beside the point.

Now, I can sense your trepidation about watching a two-hour slide show about science. But it's actually quite entertaining and tremendously inspiring.

There's been a backlash against environmentalism in general because of the gloom and doom scenarios often used by advocates to pressure government into action. Hysterical is a word I've heard used regularly in this discussion (it was also the same term used to describe and discredit Rachel Carson when she wrote Silent Spring).

To be sure, many of the potential warming scenarios are gloomy, but rather than leaving viewers with feelings of guilt and vilification, we're left feeling hopeful. Hopeful that small individual changes can have major impacts. Hopeful that the greatest country in the world can face and overcome yet another seemingly insurmountable problem. Hopeful that, in the words of James Rouse, "what ought to be can be, with the will to make it so."

The science has been there for many years. The movement to discredit scientists the same way the media has been discredited (LIBERAL BIAS!!!!!!) is one of the most shameful and infuriating aspects of the whole global warming "debate." Scientists, I'm sure, would be the first to admit that they care about the earth, but, somehow, all the work they do and all the findings they've arrived at are suddenly invalid because those who know squat about science think otherwise? I'm convinced that twenty years from now we'll look back at the way this issue was handled and feel utterly disgraced.

I don't want to give too much away, but Gore presents convincing arguments against the commonly-heard criticisms. Especially noteworthy is his take on the false choice between reduced carbon emissions and economic growth, something my not-very-environmentally-friendly macroeconomics professor admitted was an absurd characterization of the issue.

What's more,, an invaluable and authoritative site on global warming issues, looks at the science Gore uses and finds it pretty much spot-on.

But don't take my word for it. Go see the movie. It's at Muvico and The Charles in Baltimore now but opens at pretty much every theater next week.

Meanwhile, calculate your annual carbon dioxide emmisions here at a site hosted by, of all places, the Texas State Energy Conservation Office.

Also, here's information about US mayors who have decided that we should actually, you know, do something about global warming. I wonder if this is something our county or CA could sign onto.

Filling in the blanks...

A story from the Sun yesterday talked about the perils of suburban infill development, showing that even small parcels with a few new houses can have noticeable impacts on the surrounding community.

There is nothing controversial about this. However, with our suburbs filling up, infill will become more prevalent and will need to be conducted more carefully.

Because most such developments involve only a handful of houses, the most noticeable impacts will be felt in the local neighborhoods, where even minor land use changes can have large affects on the character of the area. Meanwhile, countywide issues, such as traffic, schools and other infrastructure needs, are impacted only trivially by individual infill projects (in the aggregate, of course, infill has a decidedly nontrivial impact on infrastructure).

When examining potential infill developments, I would argue, it is more important that we focus on the local context. APFO and other growth control measures will ensure infrastructure isn't overly-burdened by new development on the county level, but on the local level we lack measures to protect neighborhoods from negative impacts of infill.

All of this speaks to the need to focus our community planning efforts on neighborhoods. During comprehensive rezoning, changing a parcel's zoning to allow for an extra three houses looks like a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of other things being discussed. By zooming to the neighborhood level, however, the appropriateness of a zoning change becomes markedly more discernible and is given the attention it deserves.

Infill can be tricky or easy to deal with; infuriating or pleasing; welcome or shunned; beneficial or harmful; or appropriate or inappropriate.

The only thing that it definitely is, however, is inevitable.

Problem solving at its finest...

No, the solution wasn't perfect, but it dealt with the problem and seemed to have broad support among interested members of the community.

Nevertheless, the Columbia Association board of directors -- showing yet again why most residents view them with equal parts apathy, bemusement and annoyance -- voted against doing something (best) and doing nothing (acceptable), deciding instead to take their ball and go home.

The Lake Elkhorn tot lot -- one of Columbia's more popular playgrounds -- has been closed by the Columbia Association, which plans to rip out the equipment and possibly relocate it.

The Columbia Association board made the surprising decision late Thursday night. For months, the board had been discussing building a barrier around the playground after a toddler who had been playing there drowned in the nearby lake in September.
Wait. It gets better (and I mean "better" in the sense that the story describes better how absurd their decision was).

CA estimated that to build a fence around the playground would cost anywhere from $12,200 to $36,400. Removing the playground "would be by far the most expensive" option, Chick Rhodehamel, CA's vice president for open space management, told the board, though he did not provide a cost estimate.

Great. Because a group of adults can't muster the maturity to come up with a real solution to a community problem, I'm paying to have a perfectly good (and still very new) playground removed and possibly relocated somewhere else. Do board members realize that they oversee other people's money, that bad financial decisions affect every resident of Columbia? Maybe the direct democracy thing ain't so bad after all.

More silliness:

But board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, who represents Owen Brown village, alerted the board Friday morning that her village has to give final approval. She said she supports constructing a smaller play area but was "a little annoyed" that the board took action before going through her village's architectural approval process.

"We cannot start pulling something down," Atkinson-Stewart said, explaining that the only reason she voted for the removal was so that she would have the opportunity to request that the board revisit the issue. "It's really unfair to my community."

Board Chairman Tom O'Connor conceded Friday that the board voted on a matter where it did not have ultimate authority.

"I admit, from my standpoint, I was a little sloppy. We were trying to move things along," he said, referring to the midnight hour when the board voted. "We moved a little to quickly ... to say that we're going to take it out."

So, it was bad enough that the vote took place past midnight, now we find out that in so doing the board failed to follow procedure and accordingly overstepped its bounds. Why am I not surprised?

Here is a particularly pathetic justification for the vote.
Board member Miles Coffman, who voted against the fence, said what concerned him is that CA cannot protect the children at the playground. He said he recently visited the tot lot and saw two mothers there who appeared distracted from their children because they were talking on cellular phones.

"I can't protect them from that," Coffman said.

If this playground isn't safe because mothers talk on their cell phones while watching their children, then no tot lot is safe and all must be torn down, right?

It's hard to divine the intentions of the entire group, but I think it's safe to say vindictiveness played a role in this vote for at least some of the members. The board has handled this situation poorly from the beginning, and residents haven't hesistated to call them on their missteps. And this is how they return the favor.

Let this be a lesson to you, would-be community activist. Don't push too hard for something you really believe in; you're just making things harder for our elected leaders who would rather let a problem fade away without having to do anything.

Tell The Sun how you feel here, and tell me how you feel in comments.

Sunday Loose Ends...

Just a couple loose ends that wouldn't fit anywhere else...

Politics, Shmolitics (and something else): A new community group, People Acting Together in Howard (PATH), will host an event tonight at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church (5976 Old Washington Road, Elkridge) to "talk about Howard's poor, the problems they encounter and - more importantly - what should be done about those problems." I'm intrigued by the group's mission and hope to hear more from then soon.

Also in the same article, former councilman C. Vernon Gray, who was recently in a bank while it was being robbed, is considering a run for state senator from District 13. He would face current county executive James Robey in the Democratic primary.

Finally, various commenters discuss the impact of the recently-approved smoking ban on the county executive race. Wild disagreements ensue, naturally. Ultimately, however, none of this matters, as voters will provide the real answer in November.

Site plan approved for part of Gateway Overlook, the massive pile of dirt you may have noticed at the corner of Route 175 and I-95. The approved plan allows for "a one-story, six-unit retail structure at the site" that "will be constructed on 11.7 acres and provide 133,600 square feet of retail space." As for the remainder of the 123-acre mixed-use development, final plans have been submitted for "Lowe's, Costco, two banks, three restaurants and a one-story retail building."

A series of candidate forums is coming to Oakland Mills. Sponsored by the Association of Community Services, the forums will feature county executive and county council candidates (June 14), state delegation candidates (June 28) and school board candidates (July 12). Each weekday forum will take place at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center at the Oh-So-Convenient times of 8 am to 10 am.

Centennial Park: 20 years of treasuring nature.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Friday News Round Up...

All this zoning talk recently has taken me away from what truly brings me joy: News Round Ups. Completely lacking in substance and intelligence, Round Ups give me a chance to broadcast news and comments without even trying. Well, I try…just not that hard.

Since it’s Friday and there’s a lengthy backlog of items that have gone unmentioned on this page, I’m breaking out the whip and rounding up some news.


Brace yourself: Planning for infrastructure – namely schools – and planning for development aren’t linked. Of course, if you read this report, you would have already known this. I’d like to say we can chalk this up to typical bureaucratic bumbling, but stuff like this – different departments working in silos – happens everywhere, even (for shame!) in the private sector.

Quitting time:
Smokers and smoking bars, you have until June 1, 2007. Smoke ‘em while you can.

Democracy is on the march: A few residents are pushing for CA to adopt a direct democracy, rather than the representative style that we use now (and that has shaped the greatest country ever). Meanwhile, the rest of Columbia fails to notice.

Drop in the bucket: The county council passed a couple of symbolic affordable housing bills earlier this week. Advocates are hopeful that a new task force will develop better, more effective solutions that won’t be gutted before coming to the council.

Really?!? You mean Howard County Republicans don’t want a former CA representative who was banned from a village center and suspended from health clubs running as one of them for the District 2 council seat? Weird.

Rock Opera: Well, yes and no. Rather than an opera based on rock music, it is a rock concert based on opera music. Anyway, it is the East Village Opera Company, performing at the Columbia Festival of the Arts next week.

Meanwhile, this weekend get your entertainment fix at the Columbia LakeFest. Music, food, art, cardboard boat races and a birthday cake for Columbia, which turns 39 this month. Here's a picture of the event's set-up taken on my way home from work.

And that’s all for today. More Sunday!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Developing a new way...Part II...continued

As promised, some thoughts on the new proposal to divide the county into ten planning districts…

I don't necessarily feel any more informed about the program than I did last night. Less tired, maybe. But I have given it more thought and based on what I've read in the Flier, the Sun and elsewhere, I feel qualified to comment on the concept, if not the specifics, which are to be determined. It's important to remember that last bit. What is being proposed, I gather, is a philosophical shift in the way we look at planning and zoning; the technical aspects of the proposal will be determined in time, following the passage of enabling legislation.

But first, some background from the Flier.

Kenneth Ulman, Guy Guzzone and Calvin Ball said they would like to scrap the county's once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process and replace it with smaller "community planning areas" that would be considered separately.

...Under the Democrats' proposal, the council would review smaller planning areas on a rotating cycle and create a master plan to guide the development of each.

By breaking the county into portions, the council can focus more intently on each area, said Guzzone, who is running for the House of Delegates in District 13.

Guzzone said he is unsure how many planning areas would be created and how frequently each would be reviewed, adding that officials would consider using the five regions used by the county planning and zoning department: Columbia, Ellicott City, Elkridge, the western county and the southeastern county.
More details: Within each planning district, a "community-driven plan" will be developed by citizens and stakeholders. This plan would go before the Council and the Planning Board before being approved, and it would also have to adhere to the county's ten-year General Plan, last approved in 2000.

The idea for this approach probably germinated with the Town Center charrette -- as ambitious a planning process as any this county has seen (well, aside from Columbia itself, which, for the most part, left out citizens). To be sure, planning for downtown has had its share of ups and downs, but most people, myself included, are still supportive of the plan and the process. The attention paid to it and the criticism generated by it are not the product of a desire to see it flounder, but rather, they arise out of participants' desire to ensure the process is completed according to its goals and the plan is approved according to our vision.

What makes this proposal different from the charrette, however, is scale. The scale of development in Town Center -- thousands of new residential units, millions of square feet of retail and commercial -- is far more intensive than we'll see in any of these planning areas.

In addition, the size of the planning areas will be considerably larger than Town Center, where we must be dogmatically deliberate in where we place everything (living in an 850 square foot house teaches you a little something about deliberate placement). I don't mean to imply that with larger areas we can just fudge where everything goes; it's just that we have larger margins for error (and to think that any planning process is or will ever be error free is delusional).

However, I'm not here to defend the charrette and Town Center master plan. I’m here to say why I am intrigued by this new planning paradigm. And no, it's not just because I'm toeing the party line. If the Republicans come up with more than platitudes for how we improve a zoning process that most believe is broken, I'll give them a fair, objective shot at winning my support.

My support for the charrette represents de facto support for greater citizen participation in the planning process. Unfortunately, aside from the charrette, citizen participation has thus far meant showing up at zoning meetings, struggling to have your voice heard, and fighting developers, in part, because that's the way the system works.

Although what the Democrats are proposing won't make citizens and developers best friends anytime soon, and indeed may not remove the above three stages of citizen participation, but it will add something new: proaction. Currently, we're stuck in "R" (reactive-mode). We're forced to rally the troops every time an insult of a developer's plan comes down the pipeline. I guess you could read the General Plan to better anticipate what's coming, but so far that doesn't seem to make us any better prepared.

This new process, meanwhile, would engage citizens early and allow them have more input into the future of our community, on a scale and in a context that is both familiar and meaningful. Who better understands the working of a neighborhood than those that live there? Why not allow them a greater voice then in how that neighborhood should look ten years from now?
Decentralizing the planning process likely means more participants, who would also be more informed and more invested in the outcome.

Of course, the argument can be made that by segmenting the county into separate planning blocks, we're failing to address impacts and planning in the broader context. There is merit to this. Certainly, some of what happens in Glenwood affects me in Oakland Mills. But, we would still have the General Plan providing overarching guidance. We would still have a countywide approval process for local plans. And we would still have some type of adequate public facilities test, presumably.

But these measures would only protect against the bad. What about ensuring the good? Who judges what is good? The people of Glenwood, I imagine, have a better understanding of what makes their community special and what would make it better than I do living in Oakland Mills, and vice versa. Who am I to begrudge them their preferences, assuming what they like has a negligible impact on the general welfare of the county, something we could all assess during the approval phases before the Planning Board and Council.

I think what it comes down to is if we really support citizen participation in planning, how do we get people involved? I would argue that we do so by making planning and zoning issues tangible to everyone. And we do that by focusing on their individual community, both in its own context and in the broader context of the county as a whole.

To be sure, this is not all I’ll have to say about the proposal. But it’s a start and hopefully it’s enough to get a discussion going.

**Reminder: Nothing I say on this blog represents a solid commitment to anything. I reserve the right to change my mind on everything I just said.

Developing a new way...Part II

So, I had a post about this story -- a proposal to divide the county into 10 planning districts -- almost ready to go...but then, I had to leave for band practice. No problem. I'll come home, read through it once more and hit "Publish Post."

Er, no.

For starters, the writing was pretty bad, which by my standards is saying something. But on top of that, I was writing having only read what was in the newspaper, a superficial description of what I'm sure is a technical proposal. As was the case with the independent zoning officer story, I don't feel I can offer any real analysis of a policy by reading only one article -- not very bloggy of me, I know.

However, since arriving home I've learned more about the proposal, and therefore, I think it especially wise to leave in draft my poorly written, ill-informed diatribe. I should be able to have something of decent quality written by tomorrow, but for now, how about a quick summary of this vague proposal I've said so little about. From The Sun:

Instead of the council considering land use changes countywide once each decade, the plan would have planners divide the land into large sections, giving citizens more opportunity to be involved in changes proposed in their area.

Ken Ulman, Guy Guzzone and Calvin Ball said their plan also would provide for possible mediation of neighborhood zoning disputes, require larger notification signs and more convenient informational meetings about proposed land use changes.

"In April of last year, both Guy and I drafted a document that basically laid this out," Ulman said. "We thought to do the entire county once every 10 years was not practical anymore and didn't give the community the voice needed."

Examining a smaller area would give planners and citizens a better chance to incorporate infrastructure plans into whatever changes are proposed, Ulman said.
HoCoBlog has a post on the topic here. I was a little touchy about some of his assertions related to Town Center in the comments section. I can be defensive sometimes -- now that's very bloggy of me.

Monday, June 05, 2006

It's good be the king...

Following this post about a University of Maryland study that is critical of Howard County Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, several commenters posted their own thoughts about APFOs and development in general. Although I've read through the study, I haven't had a chance to digest the supporting studies (.pdf's available here, here and here), all of which I think might provide some of the answers to questions raised by commenters.

Then, yesterday I wrote about a proposal to replace the county's Zoning Board with an independent zoning officer, about which I'm still not sure how I feel. But it did get me thinking.

Rather than just a zoning officer, what if you were the chief development officer for Howard County? Not just the head of DPZ or a controlling, Lyndon B. Johnson-type member of the Zoning or Planning Board, but the person completely in charge of zoning, growth, land-use and development for all of Howard County.

Rather than just making this a free-for-all, I'd like to pose a few specific questions now (and probably more later) to see what y'all think. So, here are the first three, which are primarily focused on residential growth:

  • Our current annual housing unit allocation is 1,750 (with 100 of those set-aside for affordable housing), would you increase, decrease or keep this number the same? Why?
  • What type of housing would you emphasize (e.g., single-family homes, townhouses, apartments, condos, a mix of any or all)?
  • In which area(s) of the county would you target this growth?
I know small things like infrastructure get in the way of this discussion, but for the sake of argument assume that the rate of improvements in your ideal world match those that we see (or have seen) in the real world (and, yes, I know that even this is subjective). In short, our quality of life as we currently know it is maintained.

Finally, because I hope for this to be an ongoing discussion, it would be nice if commenters used names to identify themselves. I know I'm the last person to say that you shouldn't be anonymous, but you can still come up with a clever and indistinguishable nickname for yourself to make it easier for me and others to comment on your thoughts.

THE BALTIMORE SUN HATES EVERYONE (but Democrats a little bit more)!

In the realm of media criticism, no matter how flimsy your claim, any appearance of a slight against you or your beliefs is immediately evidence of BIAS! Which is why The Sun hates Ken Ulman and, by extension, Democrats.

OK, so I'm being snarky. But if yesterday's personal-turned-public story about Ulman and a Democrat that doesn't like him "has less business in the paper than Chris Merdon and the Cattails incident" and the same paper's personal-turned-public Cattail story was a "Hit Piece on Merdon," then what's the current score of the Media Bias Game?

How about we just call the game on account of lameness and forget these two stories ever existed?

There's a reason I call it Politics, Shmolitics.

Events Calendar...

Just a few upcoming events that might be of interest to you...

Citizens for an Open Process for Everyone (COPE) is hosting a candidates forum on Monday, June 12 at the Terra Maria Community Hall in Ellicott City (map). The show starts at 7 pm and will feature candidates for county executive and the county council. Questions will focus on growth, land use and zoning, the most interesting and provocative subjects in the county. Sadly, I have no contact information for the event, but if you have any questions, shoot me an email and I'll see if I can find the answers.

Another candidate forum, this one involving the 3rd Congressional District, will take place on Wednesday June 14 at 7 pm at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center. The event is sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council.

Do you support family farmers? Just remember, in a capitalism-based, democratic republic the best way to make your preferences known is through your spending. And you'll get a chance starting tomorrow at grand opening of the Oakland Mills Farmer's Market. County Executive James Robey will give a short speech at 9:45 am and sales will begin shortly thereafter. The farmer's market will take place all summer at the village center on Tuesdays between 10 am and 1 pm.

Got any events you want the world -- or the tiny segment of the world that reads this blog -- to know about? Tell me.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Developing a new way...

To almost everyone involved, it's pretty clear that the zoning and development in Howard County is seriously screwed up. In addition to systemic problems -- duplicative duties of the Planning Board and Zoning Board, quasi-legal proceedings that foster confrontation and citizen disenfranchisement, and outdated, ineffectual zoning codes and development regulations -- the process is full of other pitfalls that have virtually eliminated citizens' faith and trust in it.

For instance, the fact that the Zoning Board, comprised of the five council members, can when wearing different hats accept money, in the form of campaign contributions, from developers. Moreover, there are legitimate questions about the lack of accountability faced by the Planning Board, the members of which are appointed to five year terms. Finally, if you haven't heard talk about conspiracies or overly-comfy relationships between developers and non-elected, non-appointed county officials (read: bureaucrats), then you haven't been listening.

All of this points to the fact that something should be done about the way we allow development to occur -- not how we grow, but how we decide how and when we grow. Some have spoken about redoing the development system, notably Joshua Feldmark, Democratic candidate for District 4, who has made it one of his major campaign themes (appealing to the ever-expanding wonky technocrat demographic).

So far, however, talk about zoning changes has been just that. On the heels of her thus far successful Comp Lite referendum movement, former councilwoman Angela Beltram is engaging in more than just talk.

Now she and supporters believe it is time to make fundamental changes in how zoning matters are decided. At the heart of the proposal is a plan to replace the Zoning Board with an independent zoning officer.

The process now, Beltram says, is heavily political and too often swayed by special interests and the popularity of projects.

...The appointed person would be a land-use expert and would have no political or economic stake in the county, Beltram says.

"It allows one to step back ... with the ability to consider issues coldly," she said. "It would result in less pressure by special interests and result in an independent analysis of the facts."

What Beltram is proposing already exists in a similar form in Montgomery and Baltimore Counties. Whether this system is better or worse than what we have now, I can't say. I also can't say how I feel about it -- probably because I've only given it about five minutes of thought.

I can see how the community would benefit from more impartiality in the zoning process, but wasn't that one of the supposed benefits of bringing in Design Collective to run the charrette? They were an independent, outside actor coming into Columbia to simply translate the vision of the citizens into a workable master plan. Yet, they've been labeled as in cahoots with General Growth and the Department of Planning and Zoning and predisposed to more development and density.

Clearly, I need to know more about an independent zoning officer before I can pass judgment on the merits of this proposal. That said, impartiality is a myth.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Food for thought...

I don't have time to get into this now, but the Post has an interesting story about an interesting study just released by the University of Maryland. I hope to get a chance to read the study sometime soon, but for now, here are a few choice excerpts from the story.

The study, conducted by the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, was sponsored by two builders groups and was made public last month. It examined the adequate public facilities ordinances, or APFOs, which are meant to discourage urban sprawl, and found that heavy reliance on them can create more sprawl.

...Used properly as one tool among many in the complex planning process, such laws can shape growth in a community so that the strains -- such as traffic jams, crowded classrooms and inadequate open space -- are minimized. But if the laws are used too rigidly, they can deflect growth from an area deemed a priority for more development -- because of its existing roads, schools and utilities -- to areas farther away from urban establishments, the study found.

"This was a tool that was designed with the hope that development would not get out ahead of the infrastructure needed to support it. It was designed as sort of a test," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a group that supports managed growth. "But the problem in my mind is that this test has ended up being the tail that wags the dog."

...The recent study, which was sponsored by the Home Builders Association of Maryland and the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association, focused on Howard, Montgomery and Harford counties, examining the laws' effects on new housing in a three-year period. It concluded that APFOs sometimes have been inappropriately used and are in conflict with the state's "smart growth" land-use policies. As much as 10 percent of the new housing contemplated in high-priority growth areas in those counties simply moved elsewhere because of the APFOs. As a result, the available housing stock was reduced and home prices were pushed up.

"In short, APFOs appear to be fueling the same pattern of development the state's Smart Growth policy is intended to curtail," the study says.

Now, I know you can point to the fact that this study was funded by developers as it's glaring weakness. But the findings are actually pretty intuitive -- at least to me -- and dismissing it because of its funding source adds little to this important discussion. There are real benefits and real costs associated with APFOs, and unless we understand both, we're not doing a good job of planning for our future.

I'll have more to say about this soon. Here's a link to the UMD Center for Smart Growth, where you can find the study in .pdf format.

Letters, We Get Letters...

From the Columbia Flier's mailbag come two letters of note. The first is in response to a letter from last week, which questioned recently-elected Town Center CA representative Gail Broida's use of a Segway for campaigning.

The point of that letter was that Broida made pedestrian access a major part of her campaign message, yet she relied on the Segway to get around and assess the safety of walkers. It struck me as odd that she would use an "electronic personal assistive mobility device" to put herself in the shoes of pedestrians, but what I hadn't considered is the fact that motorized vehicles are prohibited on CA pathways.

This week, a writer comes to her defense, saying:

The state of Maryland considers a Segway an "electronic personal assistive mobility device." Essentially, when you are operating a Segway you are considered a pedestrian, with all of the privileges and limitations that go with that designation. A Segway is not legally classified as a motor vehicle in Maryland and is therefore perfectly acceptable on sidewalks and paths.

Considering that Segways are electronically limited to under 13 mph, slower and certainly more maneuverable than most bicycles, they pose no additional safety issues on Columbia's pathways.

With the extensive network of pathways we enjoy, the rising cost and limited supply of fuel, Columbia is the perfect place for forward-looking, energy efficient transportation like Segway. Every resident using a Segway to commute, visit friends or, yes, even campaign door-to-door, is one less vehicle on our increasingly crowded roads. Let's not let fear of the unknown keep us from embracing progressive, beneficial, energy-saving technology. Columbia's pathways have plenty of room for walkers, runners, cyclists and even Segways.

Hmm. While I agree that having more people commute without cars is a good thing, a city of Segway riders is a bit utopian. First, they're expensive, prohibiting many, including myself (a denizen of alternative transport) from buying one. Second, they are motorized. Although the state may place them in the same category as pedestrians, the state does not control CA pathways. That said, I'm not sure what CA's rules are with respect to Segways on paths, but I know that motorized vehicles are strictly verboten.

But finally, instead of promoting Segways, why don't we do more to promote active commutes to work, like walking and cycling? I know a lot of people don't have the luxury of living close to their work, but those who do benefit in several ways from exercising their way to the office, better health and energy savings to name two.

Maybe I'm on my high-bike here, but cycling strikes me as a much more efficient (and enjoyable) mode of travel. Of course, as a primarily bicycle commuter, my bias is clear.

The second letter I liked came from John Preston, who wrote a few weeks ago about the impending havoc we faced from the HFStival. I'll reprint it here in full because I appreciate that he, unlike others, bothered to write a post-concert assessment.
Well, the HFStival has come and gone. In the opinion section of the April 26 Flier ("Money, not community, is sole aim of 'music' festival," letters), I stated: "We can look forward to heavy traffic, circling helicopters, sirens of emergency and police vehicles, drunkenness, drug use and (probably) fights." Oh boy, was I wrong!

To all outward appearances the festival went smoothly. Oh, there were probably some minor problems here and there, but Columbia did, in fact, survive. Congratulations, Jean Parker. You done good. I am even encouraged by the diversity of the upcoming schedule for the summer.

Pass the crow, folks. I'll take a generous helping.

Naturally, you can think I'm writing this for an "I told you so" moment. But that's only partially true. Really, I'm just glad to see that at least one of those who may have been predisposed to finding any fault whatsoever with the concert took time to write that it was actually not bad. And he seems to have a good sense of humor about it, too.