Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Livesay’s quandary...

To resign or not to resign: that is the question facing Police Chief Wayne Livesay after he filed as a candidate for the District 5 council seat. Although it is not against the law for a police chief to run for office, some worry about him serving duel roles.

"The bottom-line question is, will the influence of campaign money affect the way he performs his job?" said Bobbie Walton, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "The fact that he has the ability to arrest people and even put them in jail creates more of a concern."
And more.
I am sure that Chief Livesay is a standup guy, despite some recent issues in the department.

Despite what the County Code says, I think that now he is a registered candidate (despite my feelings about his choice of parties) it would serve him and the County best to resign from the police department.

Any appearance of impropriety…
Others are less concerned.
Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) said that Livesay would likely face increased public scrutiny to make sure he is "not using his position to further his political goals." But Guzzone said he trusted Livesay to act appropriately.

"In terms of a conflict of interest, that may or may not be there in people's minds," Guzzone said. "All I know is that I have a lot of respect for the man and confidence that he will move forward in a dignified and proper manner. . . . It's all about behaviors. It's not about perceptions."
If forced to choose, I would side with Guzzone. It’s not illegal and being a candidate is far different than getting elected. Also, I think we’ve let the whole “appearance of impropriety” thing go a little too far and now its erroding our trust in everything and everyone.

But, if Livesay’s opponents suddenly end up in jail…well, then we’ll have to reevaluate.

Livesay was to meet with County Executive James Robey to discuss the matter today. We’ll probaly know shortly what comes out of that.

Master Plannin'

I thought last night’s meeting on the Downtown master plan went pretty well. The plan seems to be coming together - questions are being answered and blanks filled in. There was a decent-sized crowd, many of whom offered thoughtful, constructive comments following the Department of Planning and Zoning’s presentation of the draft plan, which is available for viewing here.

Although I don’t have a fully thought-out response to the plan, there are a couple of observations that I would like to share. Here they are, bulleted for convenient reading (just looking out for y’all):

  • I’m glad to see the Mall has been added as a district in the plan, bringing to five the total number of Downtown districts. Ignoring the Mall - even though it’s probably going to be around for a long, long time - hurts the credibility of the plan.
  • It was also good to see a clear schedule for the development and approval of this plan. It’s worth keeping in mind that this is a process, not an event. We’ve still got at least a year before the plan and necessary zoning changes are approved, and from there, another 30 years until the development called for in the plan will be complete.
  • The inclusion of a design review board is also commendable. Apparently, the intent was to craft design regulations so stringent there would be no need for design review, which is a very bad way to plan for architecture (just as creating an master plan with excessively stringent regulations is a bad way to plan in general).

Related to the design review board, I really liked hearing Bob Tennanbaum talk about architecture and what downtown should look like. Although the general principles of the plan are based on New Urbanism, Tennenbaum warned against adhering to the less attractive tenants of this new planning paradigm - namely, the focus on older, more traditional architecture. As evidenced by the buildings and many houses of early Columbia, Jim Rouse was such a proponent of “forward-looking” architecture that he would force builders to change plans that called for the same old same old.

(Driving around Columbia’s villages in order of their creation gives you a good idea of the decline in Rouse’s influence over his own company.)

The more I think about this, the more I realize how right Tennenbaum is. Typical New Urbanist places are nice in the same way an amusement park is nice: everything’s convenient, safe, and mildly attractive, but underneath it all, you know its fake. I think inspiring, original and unique architecture will again show how forward looking Columbia is and will be the difference between a good plan and a great one.

I’ll have more to say about this later.

Monday, February 27, 2006

And now for something completely different...

Before I head off to the Town Center master plan meeting tonight, I had to post a link to this video. It's a CBS News story about Jason McElwain, an autistic high school student from Rochester, NY. After supporting the school's basketball team for years as it's shirt-and-tie-wearing manager, McElwain finally suited up for a game last month, got the call from his coach with a few minutes left, and went crazy, J.J. Redick-style, from there. Definitely worth a watch, even (or, perhaps, especially) if you don't like basketball.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Downtown Discussion

The proposed master plan for Town Center will be discussed tomorrow night in a public meeting at the Spear Center (home of the former Rouse Company) at 7 pm. As much as I'd like to offer comprehensive analyses of three recent articles dealing with the plan, I'm running out of quarters to feed the blogging machine. So, here's a quick run-down.

Here's a nice overview about the plan, how it's progressed in the last few months, and why it's become such a source of consternation for some in the community. Reading the article is a good way to catch up on all the background stuff you may have missed and prepare yourself for tomorrow night.

Meanwhile, the discussion over who will manage and, more importantly, pay for the maintenance of all the great stuff promised to us in our new downtown continues. The Columbia Association is considering a partnership with General Growth, but many CA board members are (rightly) apprehensive. Said Owen Brown representative Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, "We should not be the caretaker for the developer and the county." Indeed.

Finally, there's a debate over whether there should be an architectural review board for Town Center development and, if so, who should be on that board. The story's money quotes:

"We need to let architects have a freedom of choice and an ability to be creative," said Mohammad Saleem, a manager of design services at Morgan State University in Baltimore and a Columbia resident. "Rigid guidelines will lead to the same buildings over and over again."

...The design guidelines officials are proposing would permit the redevelopment of downtown to follow a planning trend known as "new urbanism," which creates walkable communities containing streetfront buildings that are accessible to pedestrians, according to county planners.

The proposal would allow for the construction of "signature" buildings at key intersections or at important vistas that would not necessarily have to meet the criteria. But other buildings would fit into the guidelines.

But several members of the focus group called the criteria too specific and limiting, requiring some buildings to follow the criteria and no other.

"I think what's written is way too detailed and directive," said Tim Sosinski, an architect. "We need to have more flexibility."

It is interesting that the biggest complaint I've heard thus far about the master plan is that it doesn't have enough details, yet now we're hearing (as far as building design goes) we've got too much detail. Not sure what to make of that, though.

Anyway, we'll get a chance tomorrow night to talk about all this and more. Hope you can make it.

More bias in the media

The Sun is blatantly in favor of Republicans. The newspaper's reporters (probably under orders from the Editorial Board) either ignore Democrats or intentionally point out their futility in the face of Republican awesomeness. For example, there's this political story from today focused exclusively on three local Republicans vying for various seats:

Like many first-time candidates, Republican Loretta Gaffney is trying to raise money for what will be a tough, uphill campaign, in her case, for the House of Delegates in Democrat-dominated District 13.
See? Gaffney's the scrappy underdog trying to take down the southern Howard County Democratic Machine. But that's just first sentence. It gets worse!
Also a Republican first-time candidate (for the District 3 Council seat), longtime community activist (Donna) Thewes had this message for her supporters, which included two county fire union leaders: "It's not about party. It's not about me. It's about the community."
Cherry picking only the best quotes to make it sound like Democrats are all about their party and themselves. No surprises there.
Meanwhile, (State senator Sandra B.) Schrader is holding her annual legislative reception for constituents, labeled "An Evening in Annapolis," on March 6, just before the weekly Monday night legislative session.

...Robey reported having $6,169 on hand in his campaign fund when the last reporting period ended Jan. 11, compared with Schrader's $150,000. He said he hopes to raise nearly $300,000 for the race, while Schrader said she would like to collect another $100,000.

Now they have to point out how far behind Robey is in the fundraising race, implying that with his paltry $6,000 war chest he's got no chance at winning whatsoever. (Yes, the implication is there -- you just have to put on your partisan glasses to see it.)

It's not just me...

A letter to the editor in today's Sun says much more eloquently what I was trying to say here about the poorly-handled investigation of the accident that killed a Mt. Hebron High School student. The letter was written by a teacher at the school and is really worth reading.

Dueling tax cuts...

Following County Executive James Robey's proposal to reduce the county's property tax rate, County Councilman Charles Feaga is introducing legislation to accomplish basically the same thing.

Feaga's proposal would cut the cap on the annual increases in property tax bills from 5 percent to 4 percent.

Feaga's bill is co-sponsored by council members Christopher Merdon, a Republican from Ellicott City, and David Rakes, a Democrat from east Columbia, giving the bill majority support on the five-member council, improving its odds of passage.

Feaga said the measure would provide slight tax relief to some county homeowners.

"It's feasible, and it's a good way to return some tax to residents," he said during a council meeting Feb. 23.

On this one, I'm not sure which option is better, but it seems Robey's proposal -- reducing the tax rate from $1.04 to $1.01 for every $100 of assessed value -- would have greater positive impacts on homeowners in the long run. Feaga's tax cut, meanwhile, may be more appropriate in this time of rapidly increasing home assessments, a situation that could easily change.

What I'm really wondering is why no one's talking about cutting the income tax rate, which was raised by 30 percent just a few years ago to make up for a budget shortfall.

Friday, February 24, 2006

New website, thoughts on malls and birthday wishes: Try making sense of this one...

It's no secret how I feel about the Columbia Flier's awful website. Which is why I was so excited to see it's new digs.

That was sarcasm.

The new site is just like the old one, only the beige tabs on the left are now gray. And, instead of consolidating these tabs and making the site more user-friendly, they've decided to add a few more just to keep things confusing. Keep up the good work, Patuxent! (Again, sarcasm.)

With that cattiness out of the way, let's move on to the actual content. With the very important date of February 24 upon us, however, today's post is limited to one story, a story that's not even really relevant to Howard County.

General Growth Properties Inc., which owns and operates the Columbia mall, has been awarded a contract to provide management and leasing services for Laurel Mall in Laurel.

The company's announcement of the management contract comes on the heels of the Feb. 10 purchase of Laurel Mall by Somera Capital Management, of Santa Barbara, Calif., in a $31 million deal.

Laurel Mall was put up for sale a year ago after it was placed in a court-ordered receivership for defaulting on more than $60 million in loans.

Somera, which owns 47 properties valued at more than $1 billion, won a bidding war for the mall from 10 other potential buyers.

Hopefully, General Growth can work some of its magic in Laurel, someplace that actually needs it. But what's more interesting is the desire of local officials to demolish the mall in favor of something that sounds remarkably like what we're planning for Columbia.

Although some Laurel officials had hoped the mall's buyer would tear down the property and replace it with a mixed-use complex of stores, sidewalk cafes, restaurants, housing, a cinema and offices, Somera officials said they plan to redevelop the existing structure.

Too bad they want to stick with what they've got and not just start over. While Columbia's mall is actually pretty nice, it is an impediment to realizing the full goals of the Charrette. A giant barrier to cross-town connectivity, the mall forces us to move and plan around it, which is really not a very good situation.

But do we really want to give up our climate controlled shopping?

I know, I'm not really saying anything here. It's just a quick post to keep you reading. More on Sunday, including tax cuts, Town Center architecture and whatever else pops up between now and then.

Before I go, however, a big Happy Birthday to the lovely, talented and beautiful Abbzug, whose patience, understanding and insights make this blog possible.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Completely mishandled

This hasn't been a good week for the Howard County Police Department. First quotas, now this:

Howard County police mistakenly identified a bottle found in the wreckage of a single-car accident that killed an Ellicott City teenager Friday as alcohol when it was, in fact, tanning lotion, said spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said today.

Llewellyn also said that investigators even tagged the Emerald Bay tanning "cocktail" -- which is packaged to look like liquor -- as alcohol in the county's property room. They realized the mistake today.
When I first read this story this morning, I was livid. I've since taken time to calm down, and I'm still livid.

It's bad enough that the driver of the car, Theresa Rayburn, was seriously injured and lost her best friend, Michele Iampieri, in the accident. On top of that the police, instead of verifying their facts (or bothering to at least open the bottle of "alcohol"), rush to get information to the (impatient) press, which circulates widely as fact the notion that the accident was "alcohol-related." So much for the presumption of innocence.

However, not wishing to fully rescind their story just yet, the department is sticking by it's belief that alcohol was a contributing factor, which it may ultimately prove to be. What information are they basing this assertion on?
(Llewellyn) said investigators still believe that alcohol, along with speed, was a factor in the crash and that investigators on the scene detected an "odor of alcohol" when they approached the metallic gray 2005 Volkswagen Beetle.
An "odor of alcohol?"

I understand that police officers are on the scene of many accidents and probably have a pretty keen sense of what went on. But as someone who's been in a few accidents in his life, I don't know how there's any way they could pick out the smell of alcohol from the myriad other odors present in a wreck -- burned rubber and brake pads, antifreeze, and gasoline, to name a few of the more pungent ones.

There's no getting around the fact that what happened was tragic. And if alcohol proves to be a factor -- something we'll know for sure when the blood tests come back -- then it becomes even more regrettable. But the shoddy investigation has only made the situation worse.

The common result of such tragic events is usually an education campaign to teach kids about the dangers of unsafe driving. Following this accident, however, it's not just the kids who need teaching.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Round Up: Hump Day Edition...

Not much time to write on this damp, overcast Wednesday. Here's a quick run-down of what's in the news.

The beat goes on: Both sides in the Turf Valley expansion case filed their written summations last Friday. One side seems happy, the other...not so much. Care to guess which is which?

At least this one's a wrap: Another year, another rejection for proponents of a Columbia charter school. I'd say better luck next time, but after three unsuccessful attempts, this one appears to be the group's last.

Best schools in the state: There's really nothing I can say about this except "Wow." Here's the story's lede: "Sixteen-year-old Serena Fasano, a junior at Glenelg High School, has been awarded a patent for a protein that she discovered - one that may someday help fight one of the world's deadliest diseases." Again, wow.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Boring or brilliant?

Since the 2002 Winter Olympics, I have been enthralled with curling. Call it slow, call it confusing, but don't call it boring. It's got suspense, strategy, and slow moving rocks. What more do you want? This year, curling has ascended to the highest priority on Hayduke's TiVo.

And now, from The Sun, I find out that there is a place curling in my own backyard.

Riding along in my automobile...

There is a good post up over at Howard County Blog #2 about the road network in the draft master plan for downtown Columbia. He raises some good points, particularly about the viability of the grid network as a traffic dispersion device and the proposal to make Broken Land and Little Patuxent Parkways four lanes instead of six. Of course, this network is still subject to a traffic analysis, making it difficult to say what the downtown driving experience will be like.

While I share some of his concerns about the road network, I think the focus on intra-Town Center traffic is misguided. The emphasis on vehicular traffic is, after all, why we have a mess of a Town Center now. Massive surface parking lots, a six-lane divided highway, and intermittent sidewalks are all products of a car-centric focus for downtown that have become barriers to making it anything more than that. Many spoke at the Charrette about improving pedestrian access and public transportation in Town Center, but the emphasis still seems to be on designing everything around personal cars.

It would be better, in my mind, to look at the whole people-moving picture. To be sure, getting people into Town Center should be important (and not onerous), but getting people around Town Center should be the focus, and the solution shouldn't be so heavily weighted in favor of cars. The "park once" ideal that I heard several times in the Charrette should guide this; that is, shoppers, workers, concertgoers, restaurant patrons, and everyone in between should be able to leave their cars in one spot and get around either by foot or public transportation -- like in real cities.

Also, a little traffic isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it's nice to be able to cruise at 55 mph from Broken Land Parkway to Rt. 175, but is that the type of downtown we really want, one where pedestrians cower as speeding cars barely notice their presence?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Slow Growth Dunbar

Like me, County Executive candidate Harry Dunbar understands that the address of a website can say as much as the actual content. Check out his virtual stump here.

A day late...

I've got a bunch of relevant thoughts about this story and the related post on Howard County Blog #1. But first, the petty stuff.

I thought I had cornered the local market on Round Ups or Roundups, depending on your preference (I switched to "Round Up" on the advice of marketing consultants who, in their infinite and costly wisdom, explained that the title into two words, each with capitals, was more "impactful." And, impact is what this blog is all about).

Continuing with the petty stuff, how did HCB1 manage to write a post at 7:30 am on a Sunday morning? There is no way I can compete with such earliness. I'd like to mandate at least an 8 am start for weekend Howard County blogging. Anything before that is just out of the question.

Now, the real stuff.

The Republican members of Howard County's state delegation are not too pleased with the way their bills have been treated. As I said before, I don't think the bills in questions should have been approved, mainly because they meddle with decisions that should be made by a local body.

Unafraid of using hollow rhetoric, both sides traded verbal barbs.

"Today, the Democrats voted against agricultural preservation, for higher taxes and against seniors who own homes in Howard County," (Delegate Warren) Miller said.

Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat who led the opposition to Miller's bill, responded in kind:

"Today, we voted to protect the environment, to preserve our dwindling farmland from runaway development and for fiscal responsibility, while the Republicans voted to gut agricultural preservation, trash the environment and blow a hole in county finances the way they've blown a hole in federal finances."

Here's to speaking without actually saying anything. Yippee!

HCB1, meanwhile, has his own take on the killed bills.

Bates argued that her bills would help taxpayers while Democrats said they would pre-empt county government tax-cut initiatives and cost millions of dollars in revenue.

And she is right and the democrats position is misleading at best. Just because the delegation approves the measure doesn't mean that it will pass the entire geneneral assembly. It also would have been a great prod to use against the County Executive and the County Council in order to get them to move on the issue.

(First quote from the Sun's story).

While we may have to agree to disagree on the worthiness of the bills, the belief that the entire General Assembly would not pass a bill approved by a local delegation is, according to my understanding, completely false. Not having served as a legislator, I can't say for sure if it's true, but from what I know, it is a unwritten rule that local bills approved by a local delegation will always win approval from the rest of the legislators. And this is they way it should be.

When local bills are involved, legislators should focus only on their counties, and not start meddling with the affairs of others. I don't want some schlub from some other county thinking he knows what's best for us. I leave that up to the schlubs who we actually vote for (I'm using schlub in this case as a term of endearment). Just as I'm sure citizens of other counties don't want my elected schlubs getting into their business. They're may be exceptions to this, but generally if a local delegation approves a bill, the rest of the General Assembly should assume that its worthy of wider approval.

Another piece of the article deals with something I object to on principle -- roadside sign waving. HCB1 is a supporter and participant in such activities, and I probably even saw him on my way to work last Friday -- though Chris Merdon, the actual candidate, was nowhere to be seen. Despite my feelings about sign waving, I can assure you that I was not one of those waving back with the one finger salute.

My real problem with sign waving is not the distraction factor, which the article focuses on. I just don't think it's effective. I understand that politicians need to get their names in the minds of as many voters as possible, but sign waving doesn't seem like it will really accomplish that, especially for our County Executive candidates who are both pretty well-known (or am I just too out of touch).

Another problem I have with the practice is pretty well summed up with this old post of mine.
[I]sn't this kind of a metaphor--however strained--for the state of politics in general? That is, superficial. I understand campaigning door-to-door and talking to voters. Doing so can help a politician understand what people really care about. But what good does (sign waving) serve?
I'm still waiting for an adequate response to that last question.

My feelings about the practice notwithstanding, I admire the postman-like work ethic of sign wavers. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these campaigners from the swift completion of their appointed sign waving. Or something like that.

Who says bias?

Let's just get one thing straight. The Baltimore Sun is completely biased in favor of Democrats or Republicans, depending on who you ask.

Usually it's the conservatives who think that everyone (in the media, at least) is against them. Today -- well, yesterday -- a letter writer to the Sun says it's really the Democrats that receive unfair coverage.

In over 30 years of participation in Howard County electoral politics, I have never seen a better organized event or a more enthusiastic crowd (described as boisterous in one article) than I observed at the kick-off for Ken Ulman's county executive campaign.

I thought the number of attendees filling the auditorium at Slayton House might have been noteworthy. If there was an article featuring this event and describing the speeches of Congressman Elijah Cummings, Del. Elizabeth Bobo, and County Executive Jim Robey, as well as several community leaders, I missed it. Where I did see it [in the Howard edition of The Sun] was in a couple of paragraphs on an inside page at the very end of an article about Police Chief [Wayne] Livesay thinking about possibly running for County Council. There was no photo of the diverse crowd -- all ages and races -- and no description of the excitement and energy of the attendees beyond the very loaded word "boisterous."

(I didn't know boisterous was a loaded word. How so?)

As with all newspapers, I think the Sun's real bias is writing stories that are actually newsworthy. Ulman's official announcement party, however well-coordinated and energetic, really wasn't news. For months we have known that he was going to run for County Executive, and nothing to that effect changed when he stood in front of hundreds of people at Slayton House to give his first official campaign speech. On the other hand, the Livesay story was actually a bit of information that most people didn't know about before the Sun reported it, thereby qualifying it as "news."

Anyway, let's just call a truce on the media bias B.S. It's just an excuse for whining, which, unlike media bias, is something we have plenty of.

Battle of Belmont (continued)

Howard Community College continues to get pounded by neighbors of the Belmont estate in Elkridge.

The college was branded as "evasive," "arrogant," "secretive" and "dishonest" during testimony before the Planning Board last week on its request for $3 million in public funds to help finance its ambitious expansion plans in Elkridge.

Two-thirds of the money would be used to acquire two adjoining properties totaling 82 acres, including the 68-acre, 268-year-old Belmont mansion and conference center.

...The $3 million the college is seeking from the county would not cover the full price for the property, and it will request additional funding in the future, he said.

The college plans to spend $1 million renovating the carriage house, which would include a modern, professional kitchen to serve its culinary students and guests at the conference center.

Residents are wary of over-development on the site, as they should be given it's proximity to Patapsco Valley State Park. They may also have a point with their critique of HCC's handling of this situation, but not being completely immersed in the matter, it's hard for me to know whether words like "evasive," "arrogant," and "dishonest" really apply.

But, there's also this to consider:
The estate is surrounded by 10,000 acres of Patapsco Valley State Park forest. The property was acquired in 2004 by the Howard Community College Educational Foundation, a private entity that operates outside the college.

"It was the intent from the beginning that the college would acquire the estate from the foundation," Randy Bengfort, the college's director of public relations and marketing, said in an interview.

...While acknowledging the college "probably made some mistakes" in its handling of the issue, another member of the public, David Terry, defended the request for funding.

He said the foundation stepped in and "acquired [the property] in a rush" to assist the college.

Bengfort confirmed that notion. "The sale opportunity was out of the budget cycle," he said, and the college needed the foundation's immediate help to prevent the property from being acquired by someone else.

What if the property was bought by another entity -- one without public oversight? What if it was bought by developers, who would surely have found ways to building something -- possibly houses -- less acceptable to the local community? Although HCC may not have the best public relations, at least they're forced to have some.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

You say quota...

I say "Mutually Defined Objectives."

Anger from Howard County police officers over what they described as a quota system for issuing traffic citations prompted the department yesterday to suspend the directive, police said.

Patrol officers in some squads were told last month to issue three traffic citations a day and two tickets for driving under the influence every month, police sources said. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Although some supervisors told their squads that they would not enforce the policy, others threatened their officers with disciplinary action if they did not comply, the sources said.

"Everyone was outraged that there might be disciplinary actions for not meeting a quota," one police source said.
Here's where my libertarian side comes out. While I completely support law enforcement and crime prevention, I don't agree with forcing officers -- through quotas and disciplinary measures -- to fish for crime. If a law is being broken and they know it, fine. But quotas create incentives to blur the delicate line between enforcement and infringing on (currently out of favor) civil liberties.

The incentives created by quotas mean that even if people aren't breaking the law, somebody's going to get ticketed or arrested. We lower the standard for criminal activity to things that may be borderline crimes at best; for instance, if an officer is nearing the end of his shift and hasn't gotten that last traffic stop, well, someone doing 58 mph in a 55 mph zone might have their day ruined (and their insurance jacked up) for drifting too fast down a hill. Not a good way to engender positive feelings for the local constables.
(Police department spokeswoman Sherry) Llewellyn noted that the directive -- known as Mutually Defined Objectives, or MDOs -- does not use the word quota and calls on officers to make traffic stops, not necessarily to write tickets or make arrests.

...Although the policy doesn't directly refer to a quota, some supervisors threatened officers with transfers if they did not issue enough tickets, sources said. They said some officers had been penalized in their performance evaluations for not writing enough tickets.

"It's just verbal gymnastics," one police source said. "There is a quota, but they don't want to call it that, because they know it looks bad."
Whoever this source was nailed it. It's one thing to have performance goals for the officers, but it's quite another to mandate these goals with threats. As I said, what if the crime just isn't out there? Why would you want to punish an officer for not ticketing a law-abiding citizenry?

As for political fallout, this could tarnish the campaign of Police Chief Wayne Livesay, who is running for the District 5 council seat. I'm not sure how big of a story it will become, but it certainly raises questions.

The Sun has more.
Howard Police Chief Wayne Livesay canceled the short-lived policy yesterday after learning about it from The Sun the day before. Up until then, Livesay said, he had not seen the written agreement between commanders and patrol supervisors dated Nov. 22 that included consequences, such as warnings and additional performance evaluations, for patrol officers who did not meet the drunken-driving arrest and traffic-stop "goals.
And then there's Howard County Blog #1's take, which is pretty much how I reacted to the above excerpt.
Hadn't seen the directive? Who is running the Police Department? Well I admit it isn't me, and I don't know how things operate in the Howard County Police Department or any other Police Department. All I know is that I know how I run my organization and it is very hands on - so something like this wouldn't escape my attention for 2 or 3 months. I don't believe for a moment that Chief Livesay doesn't have a handle on the day to day activities of his organization.

It is probably more accurate to say "suspended the directive... after first learning this would be printed in the paper and he is now running for County Council."
Thanks to a reader for sending in the tip.

Power to the people...

I’ve been sitting on this for a couple of days, unsure of exactly what I wanted to say. Although I’m still conflicted, I decided to share my thoughts in all their contradictory glory.

First, what I am sure of. The development of downtown Columbia is as important, if not more so, to the success of our community than the development of the rest of Columbia. Given the (almost) tabula rasa and tremendous scale of the Next American City, Jim Rouse and his company had room to make mistakes, which, in the long run, would not adversely impact to any meaningful degree the success of their project. I don’t think it’s too early to say Columbia is a success as a city, albeit one with a few warts. (But, which don't have at least some?)

The situation is completely different for Town Center. Instead of proposing a massive development in a largely unpopulated area, we are faced with a massive development in the middle of the second largest city in Maryland. Unlike the city itself, there is almost no room for error in Town Center. We’ll get pretty much one chance to do it right, but that one chance is not hanging in the balance now. That one chance is not a master plan that takes a few months to develop. Our one chance to get it right is not in the plan itself but in the 30 or more years of development we have before us. Yes, the plan will guide us, but it will not - despite our best intentions - control unpredictable decades of development. It simply cannot.

Which brings me to the current Charrette opposition, which has coalesced recently under the leadership of Delegate Liz Bobo into “Citizens For Sensible, Values-Based Downtown Development in Columbia.” (And now for the cynical Hayduke: Just in case you didn’t know who’s running this show, check out the URL and picture on the top right of the website. I don’t want to go too far into the motivations of someone else, but is it really necessary -- other than for political gain -- to feature oneself so prominently in an endeavor that is ostensibly about “the citizens”? I mean, www.columbiadowntown.org is an available URL [direct link broken, but you can search for it -- or trust me]. Why not just use that?)

It’s hard to get a feel for the actual stances of those railing against the Charrette. I think it’s a pretty wide spectrum including No Growthers, NIMBYs, Some Growthers, Conspiracy Theorists (DPZ is controlled by General Growth), General Rabble Rousers, and (predominately, I would guess) More Informationists. Despite the widely disparate views of the coalition, the “official” line of CFSVBDDC seems to be pretty well captured by the statement on a petition it is asking members to circulate:

We the undersigned concerned citizens request:
that specific, hard data relating to housing, schools, traffic, roads, water and sewer, environment, fiscal responsibility, as well as phasing and monitoring of the proposed development be studied and made available to the public BEFORE the Draft Master Plan for Downtown Columbia is presented to the Planning Board and the County Council.
(Emphasis in original.)

So what’s wrong with wanting “hard” data? Nothing, except for the fact that much of this information doesn’t exist, and that which does, is not really “hard” but merely projections and guesstimates.

Quite simply, by seeking to micromanage the future of our town, we are asking too much of the plan and the planning process. Instead of creating something that will accommodate the inevitable changes of the next 30 years, many are seeking a plan based on today’s reality, a reality that, come tomorrow, is useless. There are some things we can control and some things we can’t, and when confronted with things out of our power, it’s best to adapt, lest we waste time and energy fighting the wrong battles.

Like the plan that created this great city, the plan that creates a great downtown needs to be responsive to the needs of the community and (yes, even) the market, needs that will inevitably change in just a few years, let alone 30. Moreover, the plan must be able to adapt to a rapidly changing world, as forces outside our control (regional growth, transporation, energy use, etc.) will have major impacts on our lives and the direction of Town Center. So, instead of asking for all the details up front, it seems to me the best approach is to create a framework for development that includes citizen and public oversight throughout the process, rather than trying to cram in all of this oversight now. After all, the only thing that we can say with any real certainty is that our future is uncertain, and exactly what, where, when, how, and why changes occur will remain beyond our understanding.

All that said, I'm as much for sensible, values-based development as anyone. Creating a plan based on this principle, however, does not exclude it from being adaptable, as well.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Web surfing...

If you've got some time to kill on the internet, here are a few websites you should visit.

First is DataPlace. Based on Census and other data, this site allows you to look up all kinds of statistics and information about your community. You can make maps, tables, charts, and comparisons across communities. If you're a geek for this stuff (like me), it's sure to be worth a click.

The other site is called PlanNYC. Though, as the name suggests, it's about New York City, the concept behind the site is really great. It is meant to serve as a one-stop shop for specific information about development, construction, and other planning activities occurring in your neighborhood. Included are news stories, links to public information and reports, and a calendar to keep you up to date on the public meetings dealing with your community. Something like this would be a tremendously valuable resource for Howard County (or any county for that matter). From what I hear, it was built using Open Source code, which means free! If there are any enterprising web developers out there interested in helping with such a project in Howard County, send me an email.

The debate that just won't die...

There are two stories dealing with The Plaza building -- the 22-story condo tower recently approved by the Planning Board -- in today's Flier. Here's the first one.

A group of Columbia residents is challenging the approval of a 22-story high-rise condominium in downtown Columbia, claiming that the building is out of line with the county's zoning code.

The four-person group, led by former County Council member Lloyd Knowles, filed an appeal Feb. 14 of the Planning Board's Jan. 18 decision to approve the planned 275-foot Plaza Residences.

...The group argues that the zoning for the Plaza property was incorrectly changed in 2002 to allow additional residential units. The 160-unit Plaza Residences would exceed the threshold of residential-units-to-acreage set in the unique New Town zoning code that governs development in Columbia, Knowles said.

Before sending a site development proposal to the Planning Board for its approval, county planners conduct a review of the proposal and, in doing so, normally set criteria that allow the Board to determine a building's height, Knowles said.

In the case of the Plaza, however, the Planning Board misinterpreted the plan and therefore incorrectly believed that it had no authority to limit the building's height.

Well that is certainly interesting. If it turns out that the Planning Board did have the power to set a height limit, we may be in for a very messy situation. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. As for exceeding the residential-units-to-acreage ratio, that sounds like a dead end argument to me, given the fact that I know General Growth still has a healthy allotment of residential units in Columbia. Regardless, their case may have some merit.

So, what do others have to say about this appeal?

Marsha McLaughlin, the director of Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning, could not be reached for comment.

...Tammy CitaraManis, chairwoman of the county Planning Board could not be reached for comment.

Anthony Albanese, division president of WCI Communities Inc., which is building the condominium complex, could not be reached for comment.

Allrighty then.

On the other hand, an argument that doesn't have merit, apparently, is the complaint that the Howard County Fire Department would have difficulty responding to a fire or other emergency at The Plaza.

Firefighters could handle a blaze at a 22-story high-rise condominium planned for downtown Columbia, despite concerns from residents that its size would overtax the county's safety and rescue resources, according to Howard County's deputy fire chief.

The 275-foot building - which would be the tallest in Howard County - likely would prove less of a fire hazard than some older Columbia buildings because it is slated to contain a sprinkler system, emergency lighting and fire alarms that other buildings might lack, deputy fire chief Kevin Simmons said.

Well, that settles that, right? The deputy fire chief, presumably acting under the orders of the actual fire chief, should know better than pretty much everyone -- certainly non-fire fighting types -- whether his men can meet the challenges posed by the building. Apparently, not.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, said she grew concerned when the fire department issued a "no comment" in its review of the building's site development plan.

...The fire department's "no comment" response seemed "careless" and "risky," said Bobo, who blames the county Planning and Zoning Department for not requiring fire officials to draw up a plan for fire safety at the building.

...Fire officials said Bobo has misconstrued the "no comment."

Such a response does not mean that the department is refusing to address a site development plan, but that officials have reviewed the plan and found that the building meets standards set in the fire prevention code, Simmons said.

Bobo countered this week that the Plaza Residences is not a routine project and therefore requires more than a routine response from the county.

"Is it routine to build a building that is twice as tall as any building in Howard County?" Bobo asked. "It's a very cavalier, careless response. I do know there are different methods for fighting a fire in a 275-foot building than a 175-foot building."

Simmons said that a high-rise such as the Plaza would require a substantial number of firefighters to help evacuate its residents compared to that needed to evacuate a smaller complex. But the Plaza's planned sprinklers and other safety features would help control a fire there, he said.

Smaller buildings in Columbia that contain no sprinklers pose a potentially greater fire risk than the Plaza, he added.

"The Plaza, if it is built to the current building code, would be less hazardous than some of the high-rises we have in the county that have no sprinkler protection," Simmons said. "Sprinklers have such an advantage in controlling or putting out a fire."

(Sorry for the long excerpt.)

While I appreciate Bobo's concern for the yet unknown residents of the Plaza, I take issue with her calling the Fire Department "careless" and "cavalier." I don't know why one would think fire officials wouldn't give an honest, unbiased review of the plan. What do they have to gain? A tragedy and liability? I don't, however, want to single Bobo out on this, because I think this type of attitude has become pervasive in our society and I think it's doing real harm. And I blame the internet.

In this age of information, everyone's an expert on everything. All it takes is a quick trip to Google or Wikipedia and suddenly we can speak fluently at cocktail parties (do people still have cocktail parties?) about everything from fire fighting tactics to global warming to stem cell research. Meanwhile, the real experts -- those who have devoted their lives to these topics -- are questioned, discredited, or ignored by those more interested in using information for "other" reasons. The assault on science by politicians, particularly our current federal administration, is the most troubling and obvious example of this.

Shifting the focus back to our community, we've got the Charrette, which was designed to include all citizens, regardless of their understanding of urban planning principles. By tasking professional planners with the job of interpreting and distilling the visions of the regular people, we could balance the needs, desires, and hopes of citizens with the realities of developing a town center over 30 years. The experts, in other words, serve as translators, turning the language of people into a workable plan.

The problem is, once we've destroyed the credibility of the experts, we've lost their expertise, or at least their expertise has lost its validity. We should certainly keep an eye on them and the work they produce and criticize it when necessary, but we shouldn't try to do their job for them. After all, we pay them for this, right? What's more, nothing they do is final; the council -- our source for accountability -- has the final say, and if they vote for something entirely out of step with the will of the people, well, they'll lose their jobs. Because the one thing we're all truly experts in is determining the outcome of elections.

When ideologies collide...

Two things that were once hallmarks of the conservative mind are lower taxes and smaller, decentralized government (that is, keeping public power in the hands of the public, and not some large bureaucracy). What happens when these ideals conflict?

For the second straight year, Howard County's state lawmakers have killed a bill aimed at reducing the county's income tax rate and one offering a property tax credit to senior citizens.

In a meeting Feb. 15, Howard County's delegation to the General Assembly voted to kill the bills, introduced by Del. Gail Bates, a Republican from Glenelg.

The first bill proposed reducing Howard County's income tax rate to 3 percent from 3.2 percent. While saying they sympathize and support efforts to reduce taxes, several members of the delegation who opposed the bill said cutting county taxes is the responsibility of county officials.

Bates' second bill would have required Howard County to grant property tax credits of between 30 percent and 50 percent on real estate owned by residents age 65 and older.

Bates has the lowering taxes part down, but she is a little off by suggesting that it is the role of state government to do this. Local taxes should be the domain of local governments, not a state legislature, which should be more concerned with, you know, state issues. Just because one doesn't agree with the entirely legal decisions of local elected officials doesn't mean one should usurp their power in the name of ideology. Thankfully, I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Also, those same elected officials with whom Bates disagrees have already approved a tax deferral program for seniors and are considering some type of general tax reduction (either property or income). But in the world of politics, I guess, it's all about who does it first.

More on the Manor...

Following up on yesterday's article, the Washington Post has a story today about a package being put together by state officials to induce the Carroll family to preserve Doughoregan Manor. The short story is, it's going to cost millions. No surprises there.

The effort to come up with a package of incentives has drawn officials with land conservation and historic preservation programs in the state departments of natural resources, agriculture, planning and general services.

"It is the goal of the state to preserve that land -- as much as [the Carrolls] will agree to," Chuck Gates, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said this week. "That will be up to them."

Administrators from those departments and a few county officials, including (Council Chairman Chris) Merdon and County Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-West County), visited Doughoregan last week on a bus tour, stopping at the small chapel adjoining one wing of the manor house.

I am glad to see the aggressive stance the state is taking. Although I would still like to see a development rights transfer program enacted, ultimately what's most important is keeping development out of the estate -- even if the public isn't allowed access.

What's funny about the story, however, is this:
The Doughoregan visit was criticized by state Republican lawmakers who weren't invited. State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard), whose district includes Doughoregan, said he learned of the meeting from a local preservationist.

"All of us should know what's going on out there," said Kittleman, who added that his office is receiving e-mails from residents asking him to support the manor's preservation. "We certainly should be included in the conversation."

Dels. Warren E. Miller and Gail H. Bates, Howard Republicans who represent the district, said they were especially unhappy with state officials about being excluded from the meeting.

"Here's a major activity in our legislative district, and nobody bothered to call," said Miller, noting that an effort to preserve the entire estate will require "extraordinary coordination" among government agencies.

"We do the state budget. We work with state agencies. We do have a role," said Bates, who is on the House Appropriations Committee.

Merdon, who contacted the governor's office about organizing the meeting, said Carroll family members told him they wished to invite the administrators of state programs, and "we followed that request."

I know how it feels when your friends do something cool and leave you out: not good; not good at all.

It should be noted that this trip was organized by Merdon and officials from the office of Bobby Guv, all Republicans. And the complaints over being left out are coming from an entirely Republican group of legislators. Are there rifts in the party of Lincoln? Probably not, but it's still fun to see them get mad at each other.

And, yes, I would say the same if Democrats were involved.

Recovering from The Storm of the Century...

Or at least The Storm of 2006.

Anyway, the Flier has a story today just chock full of stuff we already know. To wit: we got a lot of snow on Sunday, which was fortunate because people don't usually work on Sundays; the county plow team did a great job clearing the roads before Monday, which was fortunate because people usually work on Mondays; kids got a snow day even though they didn't really need it; and trees came down and people lost power, but everything is back to normal.

As an added bonus, the story also includes something we didn't know. To wit:

The last time the Weather Service recorded a comparable snowfall in Howard County was in January, 1996, when Clarksville recorded 23 inches, (National Weather Service Spokesman John) Darnley said.

Although I wasn't actually in the state when it happened, I seem to recall a rather large storm occurring almost exactly three years ago. You see, it's not hard for me to remember because I was stranded in a place I didn't want to be for three extra days and came home to my car buried under more than two feet of snow. But somehow the NWS doesn't see this as "comparable" to our last storm -- another reason to privatize the agency.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Short on time now...

But rest assured, readers, I'll have more to say about this.

Howard County residents sitting in traffic jams and eyeing new homes might believe that development is running rampant, but the facts say otherwise, according to Marsha S. McLaughlin, the planning director.

"We think development is actually pretty well-phased. It is a challenge to convey that to citizens," McLaughlin told County Council members this week - including council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, and west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, both candidates for county executive.

The pace of residential growth has dropped sharply while commercial construction is booming, McLaughlin said, noting figures in the county's 14th annual Development Monitoring System Report, which tracks development since the adoption of the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, known as APFO. The latest report covers Oct. 1, 2004, to Sept. 30, 2005.

Strange neighbors...

Pre-construction work is underway for a new big box shopping center at Rt. 175 and I-95. Dubbed Gateway Overlook, the development will have something heretofore unseen in such places: residents.

The 123-acre project, Gateway Overlook, will include 66 residential units and at least two so-called big-box stores that will anchor the commercial component and serve as magnets, or customer draws, for the remaining retailers.

Howard County government sources said they believe the two anchors will be Costco Wholesale Corp. and Lowe's Cos. Inc. There also is speculation that Trader Joe's, a specialty grocery chain, will locate at the site. Gateway Overlook is being developed by Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., which acquired the property as part of its $12.6 billion acquisition of the Rouse Co. 15 months ago.

Dennis W. Miller, vice president and general manager of Columbia for the developer, declined to say if Costco and Lowe's have committed to the project.

"We're still negotiating with several tenants," he said. But Miller acknowledged that the giant retailers are "two users we are talking with."

It will be interesting to see how they make residences and big box stores compatible. All we're told in the story is that the residences will be attached and not single family homes.

Also interesting is the fact that GGP is being tight-lipped about Lowe's, especially considering that the home improvement warehouse was mentioned by the Post in a story about this development written in October. As I said back then, it seems strange to have a Lowe's (and apparently a Costco) within a mile or so of a Home Depot and BJ's.

While I'm ambivalent about this project in general, I was happy to see this:

Trader Joe's - or TJ's as it commonly referred to - also is the subject of speculation. One county official declared the chain would open at Gateway Overlook, but then hedged.

"I was told by someone in the commercial-retail industry that Trader Joe's has a deal to go into the new center," said County Councilman Ken Ulman.

Ulman said he asked whether the agreement is firm. "And I was told, 'Yes, it's a done deal.'"

BusinessWeek reported that TJ's strategy of offering "eclectic and upscale foodstuffs for the wine and cheese set at down to earth prices" has proved "phenomenally lucrative."

A Trader Joe's would certainly be a welcome addition to my regular shopping agenda, even if I wouldn't necessarily consider myself a member of the "wine and cheese set." Well, unless by wine you mean Mad Dog 20/20 and by cheese you mean individually wrapped slices of American.

WaPo on Doughoregan

After The Sun broke the news of the Doughoregan development situation back in January, the Post has gotten it's act together and written a long story about the Manor and its owners. After reading a quick read, I didn't see anything new to report, although there is a nice picture accompanying the piece.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

V-Day Round Up...

I only have time for a few quick hits today…

First, this is pathetic: 

The millions of dollars spent to move the weekend's record snowfall pushed several area government storm budgets into the red, but Sunday's snow had its benefits.


A weekend storm is wholly positive in terms of clearing it, but it's absolutely more expensive because it's all overtime," said State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck.

The state spent $8 million to $10 million on the storm, Buck said, enough to put Maryland's $21 million annual snow-clearing budget well into the red. Buck said the state had spent its full storm budget before this latest snow, largely on snowfalls in Western Maryland.

"We had 25 storms in Western Maryland, with 90 inches of snow," he said.

The fiscal story was similar for local governments, though elected officials are often less worried about the money than about public safety and not annoying voters in an election year.

…Governments often deliberately underfund storm accounts, knowing that surplus money can be added later if needed.

Howard County budgeted $500,000 for winter storms and was $200,000 in the hole before the latest storm hit. Weekend snow clearance will cost about $200,000 more, said James M. Irvin, the county's public works chief.
What is gained by intentionally underestimating the budgetary impact of snow removal? It is one thing to conservatively estimate the cost of this essential government function. But the fact that our plowing budget was already busted before this most recent storm hit is absurd. Before Saturday, we had two minor snowstorms that required almost no plowing. How can you run out of money dealing with those two minor inconveniences?

Look, I know there is still money available to pay the plow drivers - who, by the way, did an excellent job over the weekend - but why do we have to try and hide the real costs of snow removal in our budgets? It just seems silly and makes our government look stupid to boot.

Today’s second item comes to us from Howard County Blog #2 (henceforth, HCB2), where concerns over parking in Town Center were discussed recently.
Will they build enough parking garage spaces to replace the existing parking and handle the increase in cars resulting from the new buildings? The parking plan for the recently approved 22 story building raises grave concerns that enough parking will be built. The 22 story building will only have 1.5 parking spaces per residential unit and about have of these spaces will be tandem parking spaces where cars park behind each other blocking each other in.
Actually, the approved plan for the Plaza calls for 288 parking spaces, or 1.8 per residence, 40 more than HCB2 alludes to. I know it sounds like I’m nitpicking, but I have real concerns about such factual carelessness. Between ideologues, demagogues, developers, and a questionable Planning Department, we have enough misinformation running through our community. If HCB2 really wants to be a community resource on the Charrette and Town Center Master Plan, propagating inaccurate information for the sake of advocacy isn’t going to help. But, to each his own, I guess.

Back to the post…
If the county is approving parking plans like this one for the 22 story building it significantly undermines trust that they will make sure the rest of the plan will have enough parking. And even if they build enough garage spaces will the garages be paid parking? And if the parking around the mall is paid won’t people go shop at Arundel Mills instead? And if people shop at Arundel Mills instead what will that do to the economic vitality of downtown Columbia?

I’d like to propose that we forget about the Plaza entirely. The building, its plans, and its approval represent the final development in the old paradigm - the pre-Charrette Town Center. The Planning Board approved the plans for this monstrosity based on zoning that, in a few months, will be outdated and on an approval system that, hopefully in a few more months, will also fall by the wayside. It was unfortunate that the Plaza wasn’t a part of the Charrette and that it may not be aligned with some people’s vision for Columbia, but it’s done and we won’t ever have to deal with a situation like it again, meaning many of the fears over parking may be unfounded.

Even with a new plan and hopefully a new development process, citizens must remain engaged. We have to first ensure the new zoning requires an appropriate level of parking, and as the plan becomes reality, it’s also our job to ensure that the guidelines are followed, that there is sufficient parking. We don’t have to trust them; we only have to trust ourselves to keep an eye on this stuff.

As for fears over paid parking, that’s something that will never keep me awake at night. If we build a Town Center that people really want to come to, they’ll pay to park here (I should note that I think paid parking is many, many decades away, and even then, not likely, especially considering General Growth’s interest in keeping mall shoppers happy). And, regardless of the parking situation, I don’t think you can compare downtown Columbia with Arundel Mills in any reasonable sense; that is, I don’t think shoppers would really engage in that much substitution for one over the other.

Arundel Mills is lame and everyone knows it. Parking is always a nightmare, it’s more crowded than Kings Dominion, and the stores aren’t necessarily the types of establishments frequented by affluent Howard Countians. On top of all that, there is that farce of a restaurant Medieval Times.

The third item for today deals with how much I’ve grown to dislike The Sun over the last few hours. Here’s my message to the editors:
Dear Sun Editors,

I usually check your website during my lunch hour to catch up on what has happened since my morning perusal of your pages. However, not having learned my lesson yesterday, I clicked onto your site today and found that which annoyed me greatly only 24 hours ago - namely, the results of various, yet-to-be-aired Olympic events. You see, I watch sports mainly for the suspense and unpredictability of human competition, and the Olympics are no different, even though I cannot watch them “live.” Your glaring midday headlines, however, ruin the experience for me entirely. I would recommend that instead of publishing the results in 42-point font on your main page, you place a prominent link to the results with a “spoiler alert” displayed alongside. This way you could still convey the news for those who are impatient without destroying the once-every-four-years suspense that the rest of us enjoy.

Until you see fit to comply with my request, I will not speak favorably of your publication on my weblog.

Thank you,


The Baltimore Sun is not a very good newspaper.

(Just letting them know I’m serious.)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Still waiting...

On a snowfall map from the National Weather Service so I can write the full Weatherman accountability post for our recent storm. I'll have it soon enough, but as I said in my last post, our local forecasters might not want to read what I have to write.

On an unrelated note, I've been told that tomorrow is a "computer-free" day, but I usually have a few minutes after work (before Abbzug comes home) to write. In case I don't, however, I wanted to link to Howard County Blog #2's announcement about the upcoming public meeting focused on the Town Center Master Plan. The meeting is on February 27 at the Spear Center (in the General Growth building). I also have something to say about this post at HBC2, but that may have to wait until Wednesday.

Getting some R-E-S-P-E-C-T...

Howard County Blog sent me the link to this story in the Business Monthly.

Internet blogging has grown as a phenomenon in almost every field, particularly politics, and so it should come as no surprise that there are several active blogs on Howard County politics and government.

Until I ran across them recently, I had thought about having my own blog connected to bizmonthly.com, but had pretty much rejected the idea. Too much time, too much trouble. Despite my deep and long interest in politics, I'm just not enough of political junkie to write about it every day or even every couple of days, especially since I would wind up using some of my best observations on the blog long before they had a chance of making it into the newspaper. For the moment and foreseeable future, the physical newspaper is the main product and produces all the revenues. Reading these blogs, which are actually fairly good, only confirmed the reasons I had abandoned the idea. These guys (I think all but one are males) are just obsessed with Howard County.

Obsessed? I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm "obsessed" with Howard County, although when I asked Abbzug, she confirmed that I am in fact "obsessed." It's a problem I'm working on. Back to the ego-building...
They are particularly good at following, in excruciating detail, what's going in the plans for downtown Columbia, an area where The Business Monthly staff has neither the manpower or time to stay on top of every twist and turn. They've also been following the discussions about what will happen to Doughregan Manor, the ancestral estate of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic and longest surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. He once owned 16,000 acres and had a huge hand in the history of Howard County and the country.

Here's a brief rundown of the current bloggers. One beef I have about many blogs is their anonymity, especially when it comes to making critical or even scurrilous remarks about other people, but I haven't found that to be the case so far with the Howard County blogs, even the no-name sites.
Hey, what's wrong with anonymity? In a sense, aren't we all anonymous -- another non-distinct face on the street, another nameless driver piloting 2ooo pounds of glass and steel, another body ensconced in a plywood fortress?

Sorry, sometimes I can't help it. As much as I'd like the fame and fortune that come with being a local blogger, I think I'll stick with the editorial freedom that anonymity provides. If I start to become overly critical or make scurrilous remarks, feel free to reprimand me accordingly in the comments section.

By the way, thanks to writer Len Lazarick for mentioning the burgeoning Howard County blogosphere.

Another "rogue" candidate...

So much for the Howard County Republicans having their house in order. (Background: A couple of weeks ago the Flier wrote two stories, one for each party. Basically, the Democrats appeared to be in disarray, while the GOP seemed to have everything in order, at least in terms of who was running for what.)

Well, on the heels of police chief Wayne Livesay's announcement to run for the District 5 council seat as a Republican comes a new Republican challenger in District 9A, Melissa Ridgely Covolesky. Covolesky will run against incumbent delegates Warren Miller and Gail Bates (there are two seats in this district). That makes two races where Republicans are strongly favored that will now include primaries. Not really the cohesiveness one would expect from a well-oiled (political) machine.

David Wissing's keeping quiet on this development, while Howard County Blog #1 offers an analysis of her website. After touring the site, my favorite things about the new candidate are her birthday (one day away from mine!) and choice in dogs (at least the first one). The substantive portions of the website are blank, giving me free reign to comment on the more personal aspects of the candidate.

None of this is to say the Democrats have put their ducks in a row. Rather, it is meant to be cautionary message to all political pundits out there: Though it's never to early start speculating, don't expect to be right 10 months before an election.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

And now it's time...

To shovel out my car. New posts below...

Gaining wider attention...

Efforts to preserve Doughoregan Manor in Ellicott City are expanding. More public agencies are getting involved, and so is, apparently, the Governor. Several notable folks discussed the matter last week before taking a tour of (some of) the grounds.

State financial help was among the topics on the table Thursday, when more than a dozen people met in a Columbia legal office and later toured the property by bus.

The group included state officials, two County Council members and Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director. They were joined by College of William and Mary historian Ronald Hoffman and several Carroll family members, as well as Carroll family friend and developer J. Thomas Scrivener, participants said.

The group entered the family chapel on their visit -- but not the manor house, which is named for the family's ancestral 17th-century Irish homeland.

"We wanted state officials to get a sense of the historic significance. It is a magnificent piece of property," said County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, who helped set up the gathering through the office of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Good to see Merdon putting his politics to good use. If it were only Robey dealing with this, I don't think the Governor's office would have been as accommodating. Anyway, back to the story.

Though she was not a participant, Mary Catherine Cochran, president of Preservation Howard County, said she was cheered by word that the tour took place.

"My understanding is that the governor is interested, and they are looking at a 100 percent [preservation] solution, which is great news," she said.

That's a welcome sign. If this becomes an issue that the state (and it's financial resources) gets behind, a solution ($$$$$$$$$) probably won't be that hard to find.

I'm glad to see that purchasing development rights came up in the discussion. But I'm not too pleased with the continued emphasis on the use of public money to buy these rights.
One proposal would involve the public purchase of development rights to about 600 acres for up to $24 million, while allowing new homes to be built in a cluster on a separate 200 acres. The Carrolls have zoning that would permit building about 450 homes on their land.

Merdon said the meeting and tour were "the first step in a very long process," but he added that the family members appear interested in the discussion.

The Carrolls stressed, Merdon said, that "they are not asking for any public money," and can develop the land if that's the best way to raise the funds they need. They are also open to state and county efforts to preserve the property, he said.

I just don't understand why we have to rely on public money to accomplish things we think are worthwhile. There is other money out there that will work just fine.

So, I'll ask again, why not make developers who want to build a lot of residential units elsewhere in the county pay to have the right to develop these units by purchasing development rights from property owners that have some that they are not particularly interested in using? Oh, right, because the developers mentioned above say it's a non-starter, at least according to their spokespersons, er, county officials. Well, what if we say residential in Town Center is a non-starter for us, those supposedly dictating the downtown master plan? What then?

Talking traffic...

Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of having to wait for traffic and weather on the 8's, you could just call a phone number to see what's causing the back-up on the road you're on and whether your alternate routes are also snarled. Well, you can...just not in Maryland.

Assigned in 2000 by the Federal Communications Commission, the expectation was that motorists would call 511 to receive - and perhaps provide - more route-specific information than most radio stations' 30-second traffic reports offer, and they wouldn't have to wait every 10 minutes or so to hear it.

However, State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck noted that there are several studies under way: one in Northern Virginia for the national capital region 511, one for a Maryland statewide 511 and one for a Baltimore region 511. Buck cautioned, however, that implementing 511 in Maryland would require additional funding that is not under consideration. For 511 to happen, Buck said, "It is likely we will look at the potential of teaming up with private industry partners."

But the challenges extend beyond funding issues, Buck said. "The national and local challenge with 511 is the real-time database that an interactive voice recording system must link to for the system to provide useful info," he said. The database must include not only roadway information, but also mass transportation and airport information, involving a huge data collection and data fusion effort across several jurisdictions and agencies.

So there are challenges? So what? Doesn't Maryland have some of the worst traffic in the country? Aren't we a pretty connected (and wealthy) state? Yes, we've got a great traffic monitoring website, but what good is that when you're driving?

Anyway, if we already collect all this traffic data for the web and disseminate to local broadcasters, shouldn't we have the same information available to motorists via cell phone? They are, after all, the ones actually stuck in the traffic.

Outsider still looking in...

Before deciding to quit your day job for a career in politics, make sure you actually meet the requirements for the position you've set your sights on. Exhibit A of how not to do it, recently-resigned state official Tom Snyder of Ellicott City.

Although he is a registered Republican, he said he wanted to run a slow-growth campaign for county executive as an independent, which requires collecting 1 percent of registered voters' signatures on petitions, about 1,600 names.

That would be no problem, Snyder said. But he had forgotten that Howard County executives are required by law to be county residents for at least five years. Snyder and his wife, Elizabeth, bought their house in April 2003, though he said he had moved to Howard in 2001.

After determining that he does not meet the residency requirement, Snyder decided to give up his campaign before it began.

Whoops. I'll admit to being a little upset that he's not running. The way I see it, the more candidates the better (more for me to write about).

Of course, Snyder's qualifications were in doubt long before the Sun bothered to write about it. Howard County Blog #1 had the scoop a few weeks ago. Behold the power of blogs.

Weatherman Accountability: Initial Recap...

Bull's eye...

What can I say other than they were all wrong (at least for Columbia). According to my measuring stick, we've got around 16" in south Columbia, while as of 7:21 am the National Weather Service spotters in Columbia are reporting anywhere from 17" to 21", the highest totals in the state.

I'll have a full recap once NWS posts their handy snowfall total map, but initially it looks like those who predicted the highest totals (Bob Turk at WJZ in Baltimore, Accuweather, and the Weather Channel) will emerge as de facto winners. The biggest loser: Norm Lewis at WMAR in Baltimore who said "I just can't buy this being a big winter storm" to go along with his prediction of 2" - 4". Nice try, Norm.

I may also include NWS in the winners pool for upping its forecast to 8" - 14" Friday night, a change I mentioned in yesterday's post. NWS even stuck by this prediction yesterday, when the snow wasn't sticking and many forecasters were lowering totals--notably Bob Ryan at WRC in Washington.

Full report coming soon...

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Perfect Storm...

...of Distractions.

It's been a slow news week here in the land of Howard. Couple that with the Terps game against the hated Dookies, the Olympics starting in earnest, and the impending snowstorm, and today becomes a day of distractions meant to keep me from blogging about anything important. Which is fine with me.

I don't want to shift the focus of this blog to weather only, but when we're looking down the barrel of what will be the biggest storm in three years, it's hard for a weather nerd like myself to want to write about anything else. I hope tomorrow's Sun brings news worthy of comment, but for today, all I've got is the set up for our second installment of Weatherman Accountability.

For those of you who don't know about this little gimmick of mine, here's some background from the first storm in December. However, the short answer is that, after complaining for years about the inaccuracy of our local weather forecasters, I've decided to see how good (or bad) they really are at predicting snowfall. The only other measurable storm we had this year was in early December, and Topper Shutt and his WUSA team came the closest to getting it right.

I spent last night capturing the forecasts of all our local weathermen, as well as those of the national outlets. To keep things fair, I am using forecasts given between 11 pm and midnight last night. Since that time, some have changed their totals, but with flakes already falling, the updated forecasts won't count. (I figure the 11 pm news the night before is the last time most people will check the weather until the storm is underway.)

So, here's the run down of forecasts:

Baltimore Stations

  • WMAR-Channel 2: To quote meteorologist Norm Lewis: "I just can't buy this being a big winter storm." "Minor snow for the Baltimore area." Will Norm have to eat his words? Maybe. His prediction: 2" - 4" for I-95 and West/North; 3" - 6" I-95 South/East. "Even these may have to be pushed down."
  • WBAL-Channel 11: 4" - 8" Balt/Wash Corridor and West/North; 8" - 12" Annapolis/St. Mary's and South/East.
  • WJZ-Channel 13: 6" - 10" for the whole area.
  • WBFF-Channel 45 (or 5 on Comcast): 4" - 8" I-95 and West/North; 6" - 9" for South/East I-95.
Washington Stations
  • WRC-Channel 4: Said Bob Ryan: "I've very confident this will be the biggest storm in 3 years." 5" - 9" DC/Balt/I-95 and West/North. 6" - 12" South/East of cities.
  • WTTG-Channel 5 (or 75 on Comcast): 3" - 5" I-95 and West/North. 6" - 10" South/East of cities.
  • WJLA-Channel 7: 4" - 8" I-95 and West/North; 6" - 10" South/East of cities.
  • WUSA-Channel 9: 4" - 8" I-95 and West/North; 6" - 12" South/East of cities.
National Outlets:
  • National Weather Service: 4" - 8" for our area.
  • Accuweather: 7.4" for Columbia (Do they really need to predict snowfall to a tenth of an inch?). 6" - 12" for whole area.
  • Weather Channel: 6" - 12" for whole area.
As you can see, consensus last night was pretty much around the 4" - 8" for Howard County. Well, this morning, presumably backed by new model guidance, the National Weather Service upped the totals for Columbia to 8" - 14". As I said, however, it's too late in the game for them to change their calls, but this new prediction at least bears mentioning to give you a sense of what might be happening.

Though I won't be live-blogging the snowstorm -- too many other distractions -- the super weather-nerdy website Capital Weather is a great place to go if you want real time updates from a bunch of people even more obsessed with the weather than myself. The site is run by several well-trained weather buffs (read: some work in weather, most have college degrees in it) who produce their own forecasts based on the same National Weather Service models used by every other forecaster. Their forecast from last night: 5" - 8" for most of the area, with 8"+ for Annapolis and east. They plan to issue an update today at 11 am.

In addition to my usual excitement over snow, I've got a financial interest in this storm. A friend of mine sent me the "Vegas" over/under for the storm -- 3.5" for Columbia. I've got $10 on the over.

Well, with the set up out of the way, it's time to sit back, relax, watch the Terps win, watch the flakes fall, and wait to see what tomorrow brings (hopefully a foot of snow and several bloggerific news stories).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Weatherman Accountability: Back on...

It's looking more and more like some type of winter weather will be upon us Saturday. As always, I'll be tracking the local forecasters as they struggle in vain to predict when and how much of the frozen stuff falls.

On a related note, commercial weather service Accuweather stinks. As bad as our local guys are at pumping up storms to get the attention of local viewers, Accuweather's much, much, much worse; they've been throwing out forecasts for this approaching storm with reckless abandon, at one time calling for up to a foot of snow for central Maryland. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service is playing it close to the vest until they, you know, actually have some confidence in the models.

Of course, Accuweather is the company that's been throwing money at the Worst Senator in America, Rick Santorum, to get him to silence the National Weather Service. It seems the NWS, which provides weather data and model guidance to all the commercial forecasters, is stepping on the toes of the free market by providing forecasts on its website. Instead of making its work public, Accuweather and the puppet Senator want NWS to continue to compile data, run models, and generate forecasts -- as it's doing now -- only instead of releasing this publicly-funded information to everyone, it should only give it to commercial forecasters, who can turn around and make us pay for something we've already paid for. Thanks, jerks.

If NWS was as consistently wrong with its forecasts as Accuweather, there might be a case for privatizing the agency. However, since they're usually right -- especially in instances where human life is in danger -- I think we should just stick with what works.

UPDATE: It is most certainly on.