Friday, April 28, 2006

Friday Pet Blogging...

A bunch of “real” bloggers do it all time, so why can’t I?

Anyway, since I’ve already sent this picture to half my address book, I figured I’d post it on the blog also.

Mr. Finch (not his real name, but close), keeping an eye on his new domain.

Be back Sunday!

WaPo to leave HoCo...

That's the word on the street. Very unfortunate. We benefit from multiple sources of news, and losing one is never good.

It may be too late to reverse their decision, but it can't hurt to send Robert J. McCartney, the Assistant Managing Editor for Metro News, a note voicing your displeasure. He can be reached at

Thanks to a reader for the tip.

Pull the plug...

…on the affordable housing bill. It’s so jumbled and toothless and probably-ineffective at this point, that there’s nothing left to do but scrap it. Start over, and this time expand the focus. Housing is perhaps the most essential element of a community. Trying to address the housing situation in a vacuum – as this bill would do – is a sure way to accomplish very little.

A Howard County Council bill designed to boost affordable housing likely will drop references to a proposed "middle-income" group of families earning up to $90,000 a year while referring only to low-income eligibility.

Despite a seeming consensus on that issue, a scheduled Monday night vote on two housing bills probably will be delayed one month, council members said, so they can further consider the complex topic. The second housing bill would allow an extra 100 moderate-income units a year in the eastern county, which drew no objections.

…The primary housing bill sought to define a new middle-income category of families, but not create a program to help them buy homes. That would come later, county officials said, perhaps when the final plan for redeveloping downtown Columbia is completed.
Hoping for a program later is probably not the best way to go about this. In general, this bill is probably not the best way to go about this either.

Keep this in mind:
Including higher-income families in housing programs is designed to deal with the situation created by soaring home prices over the past five years. Advocates say a family with an income of $84,000 a year is able to qualify for a mortgage of $245,000, but that includes only 5 percent of county homes for sale.
Median income in Howard County is around $84,000. So, essentially, half the population is vying for 5 percent of the housing. And you’re telling me a couple hundred affordable units a year is going to make an impact?

Let’s forget what we’ve done and start from the beginning.

What about the children?!?

All this talk about enhancing future housing opportunities for current Howard County homeowners got me thinking about a study I read recently for work.

Avoiding Failure to Launch: A Grown Children Benchmark for Projecting Future Housing Needs examines the situation in Orange County, California by collecting data on the housing preferences of local 25 year olds and compares this with the number of 15 year olds living in the county today – giving us a sense of what their needs will be ten years from now.

Like all academic studies, the piece is rife with caveats, but the fundamental model, analysis and results are sound – namely, without taking into account the housing needs of other groups, Orange County in ten years will have far fewer houses than grown children looking for houses.

The situation in Howard County, I would wager, is roughly similar. As much as I’d like to recreate exactly the model used in the study above, I have neither the data nor the statistical wherewithal to do so. But I do have the back of this envelope and a penchant for assumptions. Let’s see what happens.

According to the 2004 American Community Survey (published by the US Census Bureau), there are around 43,000 teenagers (ages 10 to 19) among us. How many of them would actually choose to live in Howard County once they’ve grown up? The above study basically says all of them (with the understanding that those who move out for good would likely be replaced by someone of the same age moving in from somewhere else).

Another factor in determining housing needs is the number of people per house. Clearly, some are going to be married. Some will have roommates. And some (well, a few) will live alone.

Using the data available to them, the study’s authors conclude that the ratio of housing to population is around 35 percent; that is, the number of grown-children households is roughly 1/3 the total population of these children when they were 15.

Using their findings, Howard County’s teenagers today will create in the future roughly 15,000 additional households (43,000*35 percent = 15,000) or approximately 1500 households per year beginning sometime in the next five or so years (the age data is aggregated into a 10-year chunk).

Since we currently allocate housing units at a rate of 1600 per year – and many people think this is already too much, and the “built out” drumbeat grows louder – we are probably looking at a significant housing shortfall for our Prodigal Sons (and Daughters). Factor in the fact that people other than our children will likely try to move here, and “probably” becomes “certainly.”

As important as it is that we find ways to help current residents stay in Howard County if they wish, I would argue that a more important goal should be adequate housing for our children once they’ve grown. From a strictly economic standpoint, it would be nice to get some returns (tax dollars) on our investments (public schools). But who cares about economics?

The more important reasons for providing homes for children who have grown up here are related to family, community and values. I know some kids just want to get as far away from their parents as possible when they grow up, but most, I would argue, do not. They seek the family support structure, especially when they start a family of their own (Grandparents: The World’s Best Babysitters).

Others, moreover, have social networks that they wish to keep intact – friends, mentors, teachers, etc. – something that rests to a large extent (for now) on geographic proximity.

Finally, our children are products and stewards of our collective community values. Not only does it make perfect sense that they would choose to live in the community that shaped them, but it also seems ideal for us to have our children return to ensure our shared values are preserved.

Maybe I’m just frustrated by the fact that so many of my friends have been forced to move elsewhere in search of cheaper housing (in fact, western Baltimore County is so crowded with them that we can probably call it North Columbia [wait, isn’t that what we call Ellicott City?]). As far as I know, many of them would have preferred to live in Howard County, but…

It’s great that we are working to make it easier for seniors to age in place and proposals are being floated to ease the tax burdens for most homeowners, but these are reactionary measures meant to address problems that are present now.

While seemingly everyone supports “good” planning, few seem to agree on what exactly “good” means. I don’t have that answer, but I do know that failing to think about the future housing needs of our own children is the epitome of bad planning.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

A tax on both houses...

When I first read this post by HoCoBlog this morning, I wondered: “Where is he coming from?” The idea he’s proposing isn’t half bad – though projecting five children in my future is probably a little generous (and don’t even get me started on living in Carroll County) – but it just came out of nowhere. Or so it seemed until I read through the Howard County Times at lunch and found that the concept is being pushed by all of the Republican candidates for county council (if only the Democratic candidates could work so well together…)

Here’s a long excerpt – the plan requires a good amount of explaining:

Republican County Council candidates Tom D'Asto, Gina Ellrich, Greg Fox, Tony Salazar and Donna Thewes unveiled the plan this week. It is aimed at giving homeowners a tax break when they buy a more expensive home in the county.

The plan would allow homeowners to transfer some of the savings they realize from the county's cap on property tax increases to a more expensive home in the county.

The goal is to encourage people to buy better homes without worrying about facing huge hikes in property taxes, Fox said.

The plan relies in part on a county law that prohibits property tax bills from rising more than 5 percent annually, no matter how large the state's tax assessment of the property rises.

In essence, the GOP plan would allow a homeowner to transfer to a more expensive home the tax savings from the cap that he or she is realizing on a current home.

The candidates painted a scenario in which a homeowner living in a house assessed at $450,000 pays taxes, thanks to the cap, on $300,000 of that value - a $150,000 difference.

Under current county law, if that homeowner then buys a home assessed at $525,000, he or she must pay property taxes based on the full assessment.

The GOP plan would allow the homeowner to subtract from their new tax assessment the $150,000 savings he or she realized on their former home. That means the owner would pay property taxes on $375,000 of the new $525,000 home.

Any increases in the annual tax bill on the house would grow from $375,000 and not $525,000.
And here’s what HoCoBlog had to say in his update (you really should read his post for a better idea of how this would work in real life):
I don't think the article adequately explains the benefits to Seniors downsizing to a less expensive home with a greater property tax bill. It also doesn't explain that the plan would still phase in the assessment on the new property.
The plan certainly sounds interesting, but it makes me wonder at what point we (the taxpayers, that is) dedicate too many resources to homeowners, and I say this as one who finally gets to enjoy the fruits of 60 years of federal (and state and local) tax/housing policies.

Between the mortgage interest deduction, phased-in assessments, and other perks, homeowners are already given considerable priority over renters in our tax code; over $120 billion in federal tax dollars are foregone each year because of the mortgage deduction.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for the repeal of the mortgage interest deduction, at least not until I’m paying considerably less in interest. But, at some point, we have to say enough is enough with middle class homeowner entitlements and special treatment.

Yes, I know it sucks to have your annual property tax bill more than double when you move into a new home that is maybe worth only 30 percent more than your previous one. But it’s hard for me to have much sympathy for someone spending upwards of a half a million dollars on a home.

Under this plan, first-time homebuyers, who pay taxes based on the full assessment, would be the only ones ever paying their full share of property taxes, which is about as close to backasswards as you can get (if it were seniors and first-time buyers, that would be completely backwards, but I digress). Do we really need to make it harder for first-time buyers – those without considerable pools of equity – to join the club?

How does this plan make it harder for them? Consider this:

Two families are identical in nearly every way, except one owns a house and the other does not (for the sake of this example, the non-house-owning family has a sizeable portfolio of stocks and plans to use this wealth as “equity” for a down payment). Both really like the same house and decide to bid on it. Naturally, the cost of the house is near the upper limits of what each can afford, only the repeat-buying family manages to outbid the other family mainly because they benefit from having owned a home in Howard County and therefore, unlike the first-time buyers, don’t have to pay taxes on the full value of the house, meaning their total out-of-pocket house payments are lower.

In this case, the tax plan acts kind of like the Bonus Card at Giant – it offers lower prices if you’re in the exclusive club.

I will grant you that there is a decent argument for using tax policy to help those who currently live in Howard County and wish to stay here. But I’m not convinced that this is the ideal solution.

Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in…

Like a bunch of dirty hippies reveling in the age of Aquarius, Columbia voters charged to the polls Saturday demanding that light be shed on the inner workings of the ultra-secretive NSA Columbia Association. I understand candidates for CA’s Board of Directors need something to campaign on, but, really, the debate over open meetings strikes me as the worst strawman since Michael Jackson in the Wiz.

Is CA really secretive? I don’t know and nor do I care, because that’s not what this is about. This is about broader things – the charrette, individual politics – that have barely any relevance to CA.

With respect to closed meetings, does anyone ever bother asking why? Why would a member choose to close meetings in the first place? What is in it for them? What’s their incentive? If we’re all just lab monkeys pushing buttons for food (or electric shocks), what are they getting (or hoping to get) for pushing our buttons? Voted off the board? Endless criticism?

As far as I’m concerned, meetings are closed because they deal with contracts, personnel matters and other such things that will either come to light shortly or will never come to light for legal reasons.

However, if you can answer the above questions without using conspiracy theories, then we might just have to get together and sing…

Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in…

I think board chairman Tom O’Conner sums up pretty well why all this closed meetings stuff is a bit of a farce.

O'Connor added that improving the CA board's openness and its communication with residents are goals all members share.

"I think we all agree with that and we all strive for that," he said. "I think (Coyle and Kirsch's) opponents advocated that. That's like saying, 'I love Mom and apple pie.' "
I prefer Free Ponies, but Mom and apple pie aren’t bad.

Fear and loathing at Merriweather...

I’d like to highlight some really good (and one really bad) letters to the editor about the HFStival in the Flier. First, the good stuff:

The concerns raised in your article "Merriweather's HFStival sparks some concern" stink of candidates for office in search of an issue late in the campaign. It seems that they are almost nostalgic about supposed transgressions of the "Deadheads" of long ago.

…I suggest that before Stephen Meskin, Cynthia Coyle and David Willemain pass judgement, they buy some tickets and go to the concert. The music may not be to their liking and the audience may be a bit younger than your average Wine in the Woods attendee, but they will certainly see that concerts such as this are attended by people looking to have fun, not cause problems. Perhaps they will even see that some of us moved to Columbia because of Merriweather, not despite it.
How right you are, Fred Johnston of Hickory Ridge.

Tell me there’s more. Yes, yes there is.
I am writing in response to "Merriweather's HFStival unnerving residents" in the Columbia Flier ("Merriweather's HFStival sparks some concern" in the Howard County Times) April 20. Why does the Times choose to put a negative spin on something positive for Columbia because of the opinions of a few choice residents?

Ask the numerous restaurants, shops and other businesses that stand to gain from the influx of upwards of 54,000 concert attendees. Ask the parents of children in the Columbia vicinity who will attend the concert if they prefer their children to be close to home instead of trekking down to the District or, worse, Northern Virginia. Ask the legislators and the folks from Save Merriweather who struggled to save a legendary Columbia landmark from becoming yet another apartment and townhouse community.
I know pretty well the people behind Save Merriweather, Michael Milburn, and I can tell you unequivocally they were not contacted for the horrible story in question. But, thankfully, people like you are not afraid to call out journalistic sloppiness.

Still more…
Merriweather was built as a part of our planned community to expose people of all ages to the cultural experience of live musical performances and to bring added revenue into our community. I applaud Merriweather and their management for working to bring this type of event to our area, and for their ongoing effort to work with the local government to make the necessary arrangements to manage the impact that such an event has on the community. One of the great things about Columbia is that there are both numerous things to do and multiple ways to get around the backups that something like this will cause in the downtown area.
I encourage those that don't like the HFStival to take the time to find something else to do that day, and to find an alternate route to get there if your choice of activities takes you through the downtown area.

The positive things something like the HFStival will bring to our community far outweigh the negatives. It will expose kids, teens and adults to a wide variety of music, and give them an opportunity to relax, blow off some steam and enjoy themselves for a day or two over the Memorial Day weekend.

Will there be drinking, traffic congestion and noise? Sure, but no more then we'd see at Wine in the Woods, the Columbia Classic Grand Prix, the Fourth of July celebration or many other great events that come to our area.
Brad Speierman, writer of this piece, is a tremendous American. Thank you, Fred, Michael and Brad (disclosure: I don’t know any of these fine gentlemen) for bringing some intelligence to a discussion heretofore dominated an irrational fear of young people.

Of course, there were some (well, one) who thinks the apocalypse (perhaps even the Rapture) is set for Memorial Day weekend. I’m calling on you, John L. Preston.
Well, fellow Columbians, forget about having a pleasant Memorial Day weekend. We are about to be invaded by 54,000 fans who will attend Merriweather's HFStival on May 27-28. The festival will feature reggae, rock, hip-hop and punk "music." We can look forward to heavy traffic, circling helicopters, sirens of emergency and police vehicles, drunkenness, drug use and (probably) fights.
One wonders, what does he think qualifies as “music?” I guess it has something to with age of the artist or his/her fans, which I’ve always thought is a pretty good way to judge the quality of something.
Who is responsible for this mess? Well, let's see ... certainly Jean Parker, the general manager of Merriweather Post Pavilion, deserves a lot of the blame. The Columbia Association is complicit because it is leasing land to Merriweather during the "concert" and failed to inform Columbians (but what else is new) of the impending invasion.
Mr. Preston, you can go after CA all you want, even though it is not their job to knock on every door and get approval from every resident before entering into an agreement that is pretty much standard for most big Town Center events, like our cherished Wine in the Woods, an event that actually encourages public drunkenness (or, euphemistically, "wine-tasting").

However, attacking Jean Parker is beyond the pale. Parker is active in the community and very responsive to residents concerns about noise. And, what’s more, she doesn’t even book the shows. That’s the guys at IMP Productions. But I guess details don’t matter when your consumed with anger and set only on attacking innocent people.
Merriweather is not a good neighbor. It does not serve most of the people of Columbia. I would venture that the overwhelming majority of attendees at any given concert (especially the upcoming HFStival) will not be from Columbia or Howard County. Who does Merriweather benefit? You gue$$ed it: General Growth Propertie$.
I’m sorry. You lose all credibility when, without a single trace of irony, you replace the letter S with a $.

But just to humor Mr. Preston, of course the majority of those attending the HFStival will be from outside Howard County. Merriweather, though located in Town Center, operates in a regional market that encompasses much more land than just our little city. And if you look at the attendance numbers, Merriweather sells more tickets in Howard County than any other county in its market, even though Howard is one of the smallest. So, it is disproportionately a place for locals. I know it’s not very fun to have to use facts when making an argument.
Could Merriweather be a good neighbor and profitable as well? Sure it could, by offering an eclectic mix of entertainment. If you don't believe me, take a look at the upcoming schedule of events for Wolf Trap.
Again with the making stuff up. Of course Wolf Trap can offer “an eclectic mix of entertainment.” It doesn’t have to (nor does it) make a profit. It’s a national park and its annual revenue losses are covered by everyone who pays federal taxes. What's more, there's a nonprofit foundation designed specifically to support it's operations. If Mr. Preston would like to discuss establishing a private foundation to fund more artistic and cultural events at Merriweather, I'm sure I can find several people who would be willing to help, including the guys at IMP.

Merriweather and IMP Productions try every year to offer as diverse a lineup as possible, even though they lose money on the more “eclectic” shows. In fact, they readily admit that all of their annual profits are made off of the two or three sell out concerts each year.

I have long advocated for a more diverse schedule for Merriweather and for the venue to host more community events. But I understand this is only possible if we support them as a community and allow them to make money hosting blockbuster events like the HFStival. Perhaps if IMP had a long-term contract to manage the pavilion, they would be willing to take more risks on “real” culture instead of just “pop” culture. And it probably wouldn’t hurt if those wishing to see a more eclectic schedule didn’t seek out opportunities to say how much they dislike the pavilion, its managers, and its supporters.

Sorry, I got a little worked up there...

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Wednesday Round Up: Perfect Weather Edition

I’m not usually a fan of high pressure weather – it’s just not very interesting. I like my weather active.

That said, today’s weather is fantastic, thanks to the gusty cold front that blew through last night. With the strong spring sun, warmer-than-crisp-and-cooler-than-mild temperatures, clear skies and a gentle breeze, it is quite possibly the perfect spring day. (Sure, it could be a little warmer and still be nice, but there’s just something great about the combination of crisp air and warm sun…)

And to think, I’ve been cooped up all day, forced to look out the window at the beautiful day and what I once – in much more contentious times – referred to with fellow rabble rousers as the Death Star.

Well, no more looking and longing. It’s time to do something, to escape the soft, liquid crystal glow of the monitor and get outside. I’ve got a dog that needs walking and a bike that needs riding.

For now, I’ll leave you with this, Wednesday’s Round Up:

If you haven’t read The Sun’s series on prominent Howard Countian Randy Nixon, you really should. His story is simply enthralling. Here is Part 1 and here is Part 2.

Still more human interest. Here’s a piece on Nick Kyritsopoulos, owner of Kings Contrivance Formal Wear, provider of my tuxedoes for both proms (junior and senior), and last minute savior before a friend’s wedding in December. If you need something altered, his store is the place to go.

Enough with the fluff. The results are in from the village elections last weekend…well, except for Hickory Ridge, which didn’t have a large enough turnout to validate the results. Other villages had similarly low turnout, though none low enough to require an additional day. I’m not trying to be snarky by asking this, but does paltry voter participation undermine the credibility of the Columbia Council and village boards? Also, have village elections ever generated significant turnout?

In our quest for excellence in our schools, are we going too far?

Parents and administrators are responsible for most of the harassing behavior toward Howard County School System employees, according to a top school union official.

“One thing that really disturbed me was, in some cases, it [the harassing behavior] was in the presence of administrators, where parents screamed during conferences,” said Ann DeLacy, president of the Howard County Education Association, which is the union that represents teachers, instructional assistants, nurses, cafeteria workers and secretaries, among others.
Granted, this is a study conducted by the teacher’s union, but I don’t think that alone is reason to question its results. I have heard from others that this really is a growing problem.

Being involved in your child’s education is good parenting.

But at some point, you have to trust the professionals.

How ‘bout them Eagles? Centennial’s baseball team is kicking ass and singing songs. It puts a smile on my face to see them breaking out some Stevie Wonder in the dugout. The kids are, in fact, all right.

Monday, April 24, 2006

I have to say something...


A two-day music festival that could bring up to 54,000 people to downtown Columbia over the Memorial Day weekend has some residents concerned that the event could lead to civic disturbances and unbearable traffic.

"I think there will be a lot of drinking, and I'm concerned about safety that night," said Stephen Meskin, a Town Center resident who is running for a seat on the village board. "Kids drinking is just not healthy, and I'm concerned about traffic."

...Meskin, 65, who has lived in Town Center 26 years, said he worries the event could become similar to the Grateful Dead's appearances at Merriweather in the 1980s and 1990s.

During those concerts, the rock group's fans, known as "Deadheads" descended on downtown Columbia, slept around Lake Kittamaqundi and sold marijuana, Meskin said.

(Biting my tongue)

Comparing the HFStival to the Grateful Dead is a natural reaction for people who don't know any better -- of whom there are apparently many. Such comparisions, however inappropriate, are inevitable whenever Merriweather and young people come up -- it's a variant on Godwin's Law, I think.

As Jean Parker, manager of Merriweather, said, the HFStival is NOT the second coming of the Dead. The Dead brought dirty hippies. HFS will bring a bunch of suburban teenagers. Trust me, the two could not be more different.

Of course, Teens Gone Wild is not the only concern. Others wanted to have more input into the planning of the concert, a teniously legitimate claim.

"I am concerned," said Burt Knauft, a member of the Town Center Village Board. "I am not sure what can be done about it at this point because all of the commitments have been made."

Cynthia Coyle, a member of the Harper's Choice Village Board, testified at the April 13 meeting of CA's board of directors that she believes residents should have been better informed of the event.

"I'm wondering if there has been enough planning for traffic, security, etc. around town given what I'm told is a very raucous but entertaining event," said Coyle, who is running for the CA board seat from Harper's Choice.

David Willemain, Coyle's opponent in the CA board race, said in an interview that CA should have informed the public earlier of its deal with Merriweather.

"I think that the role of CA is to act as an advocate for everyone in Columbia and that encompasses more than just maintaining the amenities," Willemain said.

If only these same people cared as much when CA coordinated planning for the Capital Jazz Festival and Wine in the Woods, then I'd give their arguments more creedance. Instead, this seems more like outrage that young adults might actually, you know, have something fun to do in Columbia.

Lord knows we can't have any of that.

Coming to you live from...

The central branch of The Greatest Public Library system in the country. (Apparently the internet is working at my house, but there are some many boxes piled in my office that I can't get to the computer.)

Anyway, how about some affordable housing?

I’m glad to see folks pushing for increased allocations of affordable housing, though I still think the predominate affordable housing paradigm – inclusionary zoning – is structurally flawed. But it is the predominate paradigm, and you know how hard it is changing long distance carrierers, let alone paradigms.

A plan to increase the number of affordable apartments in Howard County doesn't go far enough, a representative from the Howard County League of Women Voters said this week.

The plan increases by 100 annually the number of one- and two-bedroom apartments for moderate-income residents that developers can build in areas of the county zoned for affordable housing.

Grace Kubofcik, co-president of the voters league, said county officials should up the number to 250 annually in order to more closely meet the county's true need for affordable units.

"What we are suggesting is to seriously consider forgetting the 100 and (devote a larger number of affordable units)," she said.

Well, that’s a start, right? But how does it compare to the overall need?

"In the income category of $27,000 and below, Howard County has a deficit of 17,000 units," said Rev. Robert Turner, president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, a citizens group. "There is a surplus of available housing for families earning more than $100,000 a year."

Hmmm…looks like we’re still coming up a little short. Oh, wait, looks like we’re not even talking about this need.

Based on the county's current $82,065 median income, officials define moderate-income households as those earning between $32,826 and $65,652 annually.

So, you have to earn at least $32,826 to qualify for our affordable housing program. If you earn less than that, apparently, you’re a lost cause. Good to know.

Friday, April 21, 2006


I'm about to take down the computer now and probably won't be back on the internet until Monday (at which time I'm sure I'll be sweating, shaky and anxious from web withdrawl). Anything I post will be via cell phone, and we all know how well that usually works for me.

It will be nice to read an actual newspaper on Sunday morning, though.

Here's hoping for a window of rainlessness tomorrow between 10 am and 3 pm.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Thanks home depot. The first

Thanks home depot. The first time in weeks I've left the store with a smile on my face. They were actually helpful and had what I needed. Bravo!

Apropos of the Charrette

Since my real name came out, I've heard a lot more feedback from people than when I was just Hayduke. One of the more common things I've heard people say is that my opinions on things, particularly the charrette, aren't very consistent or aren't grounded in some concrete mindset.

I am trying to write a post that better explains my position, but it's taking longer than I expected.

However, today at a training seminar for work, there were several James Rouse quotes posted around the room. One of them stood out to me as a pretty good description of the principle I've tried to adhere to when thinking and writing about the master plan; indeed, I tried to say basically the same thing in a letter to the editor I wrote the week before the charrette.

The quote is: "We need a commitment to boldness in contemplating the future of this country."

If you substitute county for country, it about sums up how I feel about the charrette.

A lot of what has been going on post-charrette, I think, is slowly diluting the boldness of our vision.

Oh, there's also this quote: "Forget feasibility: it will compromise us soon enough."

That's all for today.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Time for some CalvinBall

As of tonight (6:30 pm, I believe) [update: I really mean tomorrow night...just making sure you were paying attention.], Calvin Ball will be the new councilman from District 2. As I said earlier, it is not surprising that Ball, who finished a close second to David Rakes in the 2002 Democratic primary, was selected – he is a smart, engaging and active member of the community and probably won’t rock the left side of the boat.

The right side, however, is a whole ‘nother story. Certainly, the council Republicans have lost their semi-reliable third vote; more distance from the unpredictable Rakes, however, may save them some trouble in the long run.

The bigger question that remains unanswered, at least in my mind, is whether council chairman Chris Merdon can be replaced. A few weeks ago, David Wissing satisfactorily settled this question for himself, but I remain unconvinced. Don’t get me wrong, Wissing’s a smart guy, but he’s no lawyer – at least I don’t think he is -- which is ideally the occupation one should have when trying to answer tricky legal questions. I assume we’ll see tonight or sometime soon whether the Democrats found space in the county charter to oust Merdon.

Regardless of how many words go before Merdon’s name, the road ahead does not look smooth for him. Although his majority was short lived, he did manage to upset the Democrats substantially with his handling of the first smoking ban debate, using Rakes’ vote to muscle through a political bill that he knew was destined for a veto. Considering the importance of this bill to his competitor, it is unlikely Ulman will forget (or let Merdon forget) any time soon the way the issue was handled.

As we knew when Rakes announced his resignation, things just got a whole lot more interesting.

Racing against no one...

Perhaps you have heard the Tatyana McFadden’s story. She’s a 16-year-old wheelchair athlete who brought a suit against the Howard County School System as part of her effort to race with her fellow members of the Atholton High School track team. Note the emphasis on “with.” She doesn’t want to compete against runners competitively, just at the same time as them. From The Sun today

A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction against a school district that will allow a wheelchair athlete to run at track events at the same time as her able-bodied teammates.

Tatyana McFadden, 16, won two medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and is a student at Atholton High School in Columbia. The Howard County school system had allowed her to practice with the track team, but ruled she must compete in separate wheelchair events.

That meant she mostly competes by herself, according to Lauren Young of the Maryland Disability Law Center, which filed a federal suit on McFadden's behalf.
The judge’s decision was met with mild derision from David Wissing and some of his commenters. Likewise, noted law blogger Eugene Volokh completely misses the point:

Nonetheless, how can it make sense to have wheelchair racers racing against foot racers? Even if Martin was rightly decided, and the requirement that one walk rather than riding from hole to hole while playing golf isn't really essential to golf, surely the requirement that one run rather than riding is essential to racing, no? You wouldn't have foot racers racing against bicyclists, unicyclists, or swimmers; these are just different sports. And if the response is that it's logically impossible to tell whether they're different sports or not, then that cuts in favor of the dissent in Martin, and against any disability law interference with the rules established by sporting event organizers.

Ugh. Apparently, the only person to actually get it was the judge, who said:
The more I hear your argument, the more transparently arbitrary and capricious it becomes," the judge said to Blom and P. Tyson Bennett, who represented the Howard County Board of Education and the superintendent of the Howard County Public Schools. "She's not suing for blue ribbons, gold ribbons or money - she just wants to be out there when everyone else is out there."
That’s it: she’s tired of “racing” alone. She doesn’t want to take medals from runners. She doesn’t want to exploit her “unfair advantage” (I never thought I’d say that about someone in a wheelchair). She just wants to have someone else on the track at the same time as her. What’s so hard to understand about that? And what makes that an unreasonable request?

Sheesh. We’re talking about freaking high school sports, the goal of which is (or should be) to build character. I know some people are hyper-obsessed about their pro-athlete-to-be competing at an extremely high level from birth, but most high school and many college athletes just want to be a part of a team, to be accepted, to enjoy the camaraderie and friendly competition, to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Why is this so hard to grasp?

Where there's smoke...

The 4-man county council Monday debated (yet again) a recently-reintroduced proposal to ban smoking in public places. Of course, all of this is old hat to followers of the county council, readers of the local newspapers, and people who regularly interact with someone from any of the preceding groups (basically, all of us). Still, there could be a reason to rehash everything.

The four council members have heard the arguments on smoking twice during consideration of two bills, while the new member has not heard them at all, Democrat Guy Guzzone said. Howard law now allows smoking in physically separate areas.

"The new member will have the opportunity to review the [video] tape for this evening's hearing," replied Republican Christopher J. Merdon, the chairman. Later, another Democrat objected.

"Tonight is generally an act of futility. It's disappointing that this bill had to be rushed in on an emergency basis since we don't have a fifth member up here," said west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman, who co-sponsored the original no-smoking bill with County Executive James N. Robey last fall.

..."It's extremely ironic that the people who want to get this legislation done as soon as possible are the same ones advocating a delay," Merdon said.

OK. So it's true that most of us know where we stand on the smoking issue. We also know by heart most of the arguments for our side and theirs. Yet if the ostensible reason for reintroducing this legislation was to give the new council person, who will be sworn in tomorrow, a chance to decide the matter, shouldn't this person have an opportunity to hear arguments and debate with fellow council members? Instead, Merdon -- the one who proposed the new legislation -- basically says "watch it on TiVo."

Ironic in the extreme is probably not the best way to describe what's going on. There may be some irony in there, but since I've never bothered to truly understand the word (moral reasons), I can't say for sure. What I can say, however, is that I really don't think you can blame the Democrats of trying to delay the legislation. I'd say it's more of an attempt at truly representative democracy.

UPDATE: Damn you, Baltimore Sun, for conveniently hiding the news that Calvin Ball was chosen by the Howard County Democratic Central Committee for appointment to David Rakes' seat. Rather than put this very Howard-centric piece of news in the, you know, Howard section, the Sun hid it in Maryland News>Politics where no one (except HoCoBlog, David Wissing, and probably eveyone else but me) could find it. I'll have more to say about this later (maybe tonight), but for now let's just say Ball was a predicatable, but very good choice. Not that there's anything wrong with predictable. We've got enough uncertainty in life as it is...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tuesday Round Up...

With the moving clock ticking and a considerable amount of work left to do, we're running out of steam here at Hayduke Blog Central. Thanks go out to the little brother for his superb work on the bathroom floors last night. Now, if we could get the new vanity/sink installed, our only bathroom will be fully functional. Here's to hoping the water's flowing by Saturday -- moving day.

On, then, to the news...

As expected, county executive James Robey proposed a 3-cent reduction in our property tax rate. Last month, bloggers, include myself, debated the merits of Robey's proposal as compared to councilman Charles Feaga's, which calls for a 1 percentage point reduction in the annual assesment increases. To read the debate, click here and follow the links.

Two more Democratic candidates enter the District 2 race, swelling to four the number of hopefuls for the currently unoccupied seat. Speaking of which, the Howard County Democratic Central Committee, according to the article, met today to decide on David Rakes' replacement. Though I'm not sure who they will choose, the smart money has to be on Calvin Ball, who finished second to Rakes four years ago and whom he endorsed upon resigning last month.

That's all for now. I know this is a pathetic showing for a Round Up. I'll do better the next time.

Monday, April 17, 2006

What gives?

In the last week, my real name comes out, a story about bloggers is published in The Examiner, and I basically shut down the shop for three days without so much as a failed cell phone photo post.

Blogging had been going at a pretty good clip for a while -- almost daily for several months -- and I guarantee I will return to my normal schedule in about a week. Until then, things will be hit or miss around here, with more misses than hits.

Here are a couple quick things before I go:

Evan's got some information on a Democrat candidates Meet n' Greet tonight at the Glenwood library. Go if you want. Let me know what you think.

Although finding a house was tough (then extremely easy), at least we used money. Some guy is trying to do it with one red paperclip.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

An eye for detail...

I spent most of last night on a ladder painting as precise a line as I could between walls and the ceiling (we have the horrible “popcorn” style ceilings, so this can be a little hard).

Often I would paint a nearly straight line on the first try, while other times I had to go back and fill in spaces that didn’t look right. As I filled in spaces and tried to make the line as perfect as possible, I focused more and more closely, noticing with each brush stroke another minor imperfection that needed correcting.

Inevitably, if I spent too much time meticulously trying to perfect an area, the brush would slip and Warm Muffin would be all over the white ceiling.

When I finally finished with the work last night, I hopped down from my ladder, took a step back and inspected my work. Surprisingly, there was only one difference between places where I was very detail-oriented and places where I simply accepted the good-enough line: paint on the ceiling. From a distance, the lines themselves all looked good; it was the ceiling that looked crummy.

This isn’t an endorsement of laziness, or an admonishment of thoroughness. Rather, it’s a story about our perspective and how it affects our actions. Close up, the white spots bothered me. Further back, they were unnoticeable…but the paint on the ceiling certainly was not.

I thought about all of this after reading the Flier’s editorial about the charrette today.

Thursday Round Up: Low on time, low on thoughts...

Here’s a quick rundown…

Master plan loses momentum: Is my concern that the Town Center master plan is drifting further and further from the charrette and citizens valid? Looking at this timeline, it certainly seems so.

Thunder Hill housing plan draws criticism: I have no real comment (for now) on this story other than to say that the term “mixed-use” should not be applied to developments that are solely residential, regardless of whether they offer a mix of housing types. We have enough moving targets; language should not be one of them.

Openness, accountability for CA are common goal: The Flier issued endorsements today for the Columbia council elections. There are three contested races – Harpers Choice, Town Center, and Wilde Lake – for which the Flier endorsed Cynthia Coyle, Jud Malone, and William Santos.

Meanwhile, in the blogosphere, Evan Coren has beef with Malone and endorsed his opponent, Gail Broida, while David Wissing, a Town Center resident, thinks Malone has done a good job and should be reelected.

Evan's problems with Malone stem from, among other things, a vote he cast that would have closed some CA meetings dealing with the formation of a downtown partnership. In addition, Evan, after calling Malone a “very smooth, well practiced politician,” goes on to say:

I can see that if I had not 1) sat through the CA meeting where I watched with my own eyes Jud trying to close the public out of the Downtown Partnership planning meeting when there was no personnel or legal council reasons to justify the closing of those meetings, 2) sat through all of the focus group meetings where Jud has repeatedly preached how we must trust the developers and the county officials, 3) watched him preach our need to trust the developers and county official at the downtown Columbia public meeting on February 27th, I might have fallen for his smooth talk.
I’m not sure what he’s getting at here, but I can guess. Usually when someone mentions another’s “smooth” talking, the implication is that the person isn’t being entirely honest and likely has ulterior motives. What, I’m wondering, does he think Malone’s ulterior motives are?

Moreover, it seems to me that attacking Malone simply because he believes we should trust developers and county officials is highly cynical. Alas, such cynicism, which is a product of our screwed-up development system, is all too prevelant.

A reasonable goal of the charrette was to build consensus, and not just among citizens. It was supposed to be a way for us and them -- developers and county officials -- to have a dialogue about our future, rather than having us endlessly scream at each other.

At some point, we need to start trusting again. If we don't, we'll never have an acceptable master plan. What's more, if past generations had such a reflexive aversion to trusting developers, Columbia would not exist.

Evan ends his endorsement with this:
Town Center and Columbia needs CA reps like Gail Broida who helps find solutions so the redevelopment plan serves both the developer AND the community.
Meanwhile, in the open meetings post linked to above, he says:
And while we are at it I think a lot of credit is due Ken Ulman for opening the whole downtown Columbia redevelopment process up by pushing to have the charrette.
I don’t want to take any credit away from Ulman for making the charrette a reality, but if I am recalling things correctly, it was actually Jud Malone and Josh Feldmark who really got the charrette movement going. If you remember back to December of 2004, CA took the lead on this issue by deciding to fund a preliminary study and (I believe, though I could be wrong) the charrette itself before the county, a few months later, took over. I know this so well because I attended the meeting where CA debated whether to fund this project and offered testimony in support of it.

It is fine with me if Evan wants to claim that Malone is too secretive or too much of a smooth talker, but saying he hasn’t worked for solutions that serve “both the developer AND the community” is flat out wrong. If it weren’t for Malone’s leadership on this matter, there might be a Wal-Mart on the Crescent property today, and there would almost certainly have been no charrette or master plan.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Just like Frogger...only real...

As a regular pedestrian in Town Center, I can sympathize with this:

Martin Kinsler lives so close to The Mall in Columbia that he can walk there. But, rather than cross one street, he gets into his car and drives.

The 64-year-old resident of the Evergreens apartments, a rental community for ages 55 and older, said crossing Ring Road, the roadway that circles the mall, is life-threatening.

"I was walking across to get to the mall, and it was difficult. ... Me and my wife were nearly hit," said Kinsler, who said several of his neighbors had similar experiences and now drive across the street.
Pedestrian safety – or the lack thereof – in Town Center is nothing new. It has been brought up repeatedly in during the master plan process and before then, was a major topic of discussion during the two zoning cases involving the Crescent.

The mall’s management, however, is taking steps to make this area of the Ring Road safer. To wit:
Karen Geary, manager of the mall, and public officials met with residents of the Warfield Triangle in February to address the pedestrian problems.

Geary said this week that the following actions are expected to be completed by the end of this month:

• Rumble strips will be installed on Ring Road between the Evergreens apartments and the Cheesecake Factory.

• A marked crosswalk will be added on Ring Road between the AMC Theatre and Cheesecake Factory.

• Pedestrian signage will be increased in the area, and the yellow lights affixed to stop signs at the three-way intersection next to the AMC Theatre will be changed to red.
That’s a start, but these – like most of the pedestrian accessibility measures we currently have in place – are just cosmetic. Town Center – as currently construed – is fundamentally an auto-centric area and painting more crosswalks and adding more signs, though admirable, ain’t gonna change that.

Making downtown more pedestrian friendly isn’t that hard – at least from a physical standpoint. Better connections, more sidewalks, better streetscapes and such are all part of the master plan, but are not on their own going to make Town Center suddenly a place where pedestrians feel at home. No, that requires something a little more difficult: Behavioral change.

At the first charrette meeting, I argued with a couple at my table who wanted to be able to walk around Town Center at will, but at the same time wanted to make the trip from Oakland Mills to the mall in only five minutes. Reducing the speed limit or number of lanes on Little Patuxent Parkway was not an option, nor, for that matter, was inconveniencing drivers in any way.

Pedestrians, by their very nature, are an inconvenience for drivers if we assume, as we should, that one of the main purposes of driving is to get from one place to another in the most efficient (read: quick) way possible. Pedestrians just junk up the works.

Usually, changing human behavior is next to impossible, but in this case it shouldn’t be, as the process is cyclical and self-driven, albeit with a little help from outside forces. For example, enhancements are made that increase the safety, accessibility and enjoyment of walking in Town Center. More people start walking. Drivers, in turn, notice – either on their own or by coercion – that more pedestrians are on the street, and they start slowing down. As driving slows, it becomes less convenient to hop into the car and go from one part of Town Center to another. Accordingly, more people start parking their cars and using their feet for something other than pushing the accelerator.

It’s not exactly that easy, but the train of thought gets to the point I’m trying to make, which is: there’s a delicate balance between "safe for pedestrian" and "convenient for drivers." How far towards one side or the other we go depends on what our true priorities are.

Yes, we can have both, but only to a certain extent. Like in everything, we have to make tradeoffs based on our priorities.

So what’s more important to you in Town Center: walking or driving? I'm not trying to be flippant. Whichever we decide -- and to what extent we value one over the other -- has a huge impact on the future of our city.

Speaking of Town Center...

From the Department of What We Already Know

The current County Council will not rule on a development plan that aims to turn downtown Columbia into a bustling urban environment with additional shops and homes.

Responding to resident criticism that the development plan is rushed and lacks detail, the county has postponed taking it to the council for approval until February at the earliest, when the group will have five new members after the November elections.

…A new schedule sets out two options. In one scenario, the Planning Board would hear the plan in early October, and the council would vote on it in February. The second option has the Planning Board hearing the proposal in early February, with the council ruling on it in June.
That’s June of 2007, mind you. Almost two years after the charrette – the foundation upon which this plan should be built – took place. The more distant the voice, the softer it becomes.

I know there are a lot of details that need to be worked out. I’m fine with that. What I’m not fine with is the growing disconnect between the plan and the hundreds of folks whose input was supposed to shape it.

The Master Plan Focus Group is supposed to be representative of the participants in the charrette. Representative how, though? In demographics? View points? In level of commitment to Columbia?

If the ostensible purpose of the master plan was to allow citizens to take control of their future, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a focus group – the group that now, for better or worse, controls the fate of the plan – that is representative of all Columbians and not just those for whom DPZ collected demographic data at the charrette?

That the youngest member of the focus group is – I’m told – in their late 30s speaks volumes about its structure and the likely outcome of its work (since meetings are scheduled during the workday, I have trouble attending). I’m well aware that the number of 30-year-olds who attended the charrette is dwarfed by the number of 50-year-olds, but I would argue that makes it even more important for there to be at least one young voice in the group. Certainly, Evan Coren, who has attended every focus group meeting, is doing his part, albeit from the peanut gallery.

I don’t want to turn this into some big thing. I just wanted to highlight that we’re now talking about a fundamentally different process than we had before, a process that is being directed by an oligarchy and not the citizens. Granted, the citizen-driven component was more republican than democratic, but that was as it should be.

This hasn’t been fully thought out. I’ve got Warm Muffin on the brain.

UPDATE: In my obsession with Columbia and age, I realized, with the help of a reader, that in addition to young voices (or a young voice) we should have more Howard County voices. I know there are at least a few non-Columbia people on there, but the discussion is so tighly focused location-wise that it could benefit from more and broader perspectives. Maybe it's time to do another charrette? Who knows, we've certainly learned a lot over the last six months.

Also, I added a link to Evan's blog. I meant to do so, but the smell of Warm Muffin distracted me. Now, I really have to go.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I on Howard...

Here's a picture I took during lunch...

After this attempt failed, I think I finally figured out how to post these pictures directly from my phone. I hope to do more of this, for no other reason than it's kind of fun.

That's it for today.

Monday, April 10, 2006

More on my house...

After thinking more about this post, which is the story of how I came to afford a house in Howard County, I began to worry that one could perceive it as indulgent (isn't that what blogging is all about?).

I know this is my blog and I can write what I want. But I still like to keep things focused on what matters in Howard County, and my story is probably not the most important one you'll ever read. Writing about buying our first house, I thought, would hopefully provide some insight into what it's like for a first-time buyer. If it does, that's great.

Obviously, I'm extremely happy about it -- going over there now to do some more painting -- and it's hard not to write about. It's also hard not to write a lot about it, since it has been such a consuming part of my life for the past few weeks (and many more weeks to come, I'm sure).

I already wrote a disclaimer (two even) for the post, so I'm not sure why I feel the need to do this. I guess I just don't want people to think that this space will turn into a celebration of all things me, because it won't. Frankly, I'm not that interesting.

Response to HoCoBlog

Many entities are involved in the planning for the HFStival, which is as it should be. The concert, scheduled for Memorial Day weekend at Merriweather Post Pavilion, is going to be one of the biggest shows ever, and developing a coordinated plan involving public safety officials, the Columbia Association, IMP Productions, General Growth, and other county agencies is the best way to everything goes smoothly, which it will.

A veteran of past HFStivals, HoCoBlog is happy to see it is coming to town, and highlights this excerpt from a Washington Post story:

“It will probably be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, events of the summer,” said Capt. Merritt Bender, commander of the special operations bureau for the Howard County Police Department. The bureau, working with Merriweather officials and county fire and rescue services, already is deep into the details of staffing, security and traffic management.
Nothing strange in there, or at least nothing that strikes me as strange. If anything, it sounds like the police are ahead of the curve. But something does not sit right with HoCoBlog.
It is my understanding that since the Howard County Police Department is not staffed to handle an event like this (nothing wrong with that) they are going to hire Baltimore County Police Officers for the additional resources they need.

SO WHAT? You may ask. This may seem like a non-issue to you, but let me ask this question anyway.

Why doesn't the Howard County Police Department utilize the resources of the Howard County Sheriff's Department? Why outsource security to Baltimore County? Doesn't our own Sheriff's Deputies have the necessary experience and training to provide this extra level of security? We trust them with security at the Courthouse, transporting prisoners, handling domestic violence, issuing warrants, backing up the Police Department Officers in the line of duty, etc.

Aside from that, if our Law Enforcement Officers need assistance with affordable housing couldn't they use the overtime pay too? Why would the HCPD spend our money on extra security on an outside party instead of caring for our own?
Leaving aside the question of how he knows this fact when the article made no mention of it, I think he’s needlessly questioning a common practice to score a few easy political points. Every time there is a massive rally in DC, I hear stories about cops from Prince Georges and Montgomery County coming in to help with security. It’s the way things are done.

But why not use the Sheriffs? I suppose they could, but don’t Sheriffs have other things they should be doing? And isn’t their department significantly smaller than the police department? And, have you ever seen a Sheriff at Merriweather? Maybe they are not properly trained for this type of work – it is, after all, overseen by the “special operations bureau” and, one would hope, requires additional training.

How about paying overtime to police officers who would otherwise have the weekend off? I’m sure there is some of that, but you also have to remember that this is Memorial Day weekend – so many officers will, like us, take the opportunity to get a way. Moreover, regardless of the size of your force and how much overtime you pay, there are only so many extra man-hours you can get out of your people. Obviously, we’ll need officers on duty before and after the show, and we certainly can’t expect them to pull 24-hour shifts.

This is simply a matter of not having the human resources. Although in theory, we probably have enough cops in our department to patrol Merriweather during the concert, they’re human and can’t be redistributed as easily as money. Thus, we pay Baltimore County for the temporary use of their manpower.

The final paragraph in HoCoBlog’s post is what makes me think this is more about politics, as he lambastes Ken Ulman’s bill to make housing more affordable to local officers in an earlier post.

Another response to HoCoBlog

My intention is really not to go after HoCoBlog – he just posted a few things that I feel need clarification. As you saw above, I responded to his HFStival post, and this is in response to his “Dryer’s Ice Cream and Town Center” post, which was also written today.

In it, he expresses concern about the cost of upgrading our wastewater plant in order to accommodate the Dreyer’s Ice Cream plant in Laurel. It looks like Dreyer’s is footing half the bill ($42 million of the $85 million total), but HoCoBlog is more concerned about the plant sticking around, especially in light of Nestle S.A.’s recent acquisition of the Dreyer’s brand.

What we don't know is if Dreyer's will be here in 30 years and what Nestle S.A.'s plans are for their new business unit they took control of in January 2006. Who can predict that far out?
But, that’s not really what I want to talk about (and, for that matter, neither does he). The bulk of the post is spent discussing the Town Center master plan and what effect it will have on our wastewater treatment capabilities. He quotes this FAQ put out by the Department of Planning and Zoning that describes amount of wastewater that would be created by the current plan.
Sewer: DPW projects the design peak sewerage flow for the proposed development will range from 2,128,000 gpd to 3,400,000 gpd. DPW already has capital projects underway for both expansion of the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant and for additional capacity for three sewer interceptors within Town Center and the Little Patuxent parallel sewer interceptor from Columbia to the Water Reclamation Plant in Laurel (about 8 miles). DPW will have its consultant study the anticipated additional capacity needed for Downtown.
Well, that certainly sounds like a lot of gallons per day, but given the current capacity of the plant – 18 million gpd – and the capacity it will have at the end of its expansion – 25 million gpd – the Town Center discharge starts to look a little smaller. But, what do I know? HoCoBlog then quotes an anonymous “someone:”
"[This is] massive ... compared to Dreyers, [the] increases in water and sewer use will blow the entire utility system out of the ground. ...the top utility guys ... think the TC plans are DOA, because of this overlooked fact. The capital improvements planned for utilities barely take this ... expansion into account. Additionally, a study, if it can be done, would take months. The big question is this. Why is DPZ flying on autopilot without checking with DPW to address the feasibility of the whole plan? Another $1/4 million or more down the toliet, literally, due to totally incompetent planning from DPZ. The TC master plan is nothing more than ... delusions of granduer passed along to an inept county planning group. One of those "looks great on paper" ideas [but] are impossible to build. If the approach to roads is, 'We will deal with the traffic issues as they arise.' so is the approach to sewer and water. That meanthey will take care of the problems after they occur, which is not the kind of planning I want done in my backyard.

Treatment plant upgrades can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and that is only if MDE [Maryland Department of the Enviroment] grants a permit for expansion. There should be no increases in density until the permitting process is well underway. You can't build the toliets either until the plant upgrade is complete. Just the upgrade and permits could take 5 years. with everything going just right."
Whoever it is, the person he quotes is making statements without basis, though HoCoBlog seems to think he/she is worthy of being listened to. His/Her statement is so full of cynical, not-provable and not-sourced stuff that I don’t see how it can be taken seriously. Yes, I acknowledge the irony in me calling out an anonymous person, but at least I try to provide links to back up claims.

So, what claims are without merit? “Top utility guys” means nothing. That is no source. Saying the DPZ has failed to coordinate with DPW is patently false. See the excerpt from the FAQ above – those numbers didn’t come out of thin air.

Criticizing the charrette, which was a citizen-driven process – despite what so many who are upset with the outcome are now trying to claim – is not going to engender positive reactions from those who participated and who continue to participate. Maybe this person didn't like what he/she heard, but I did. That's doesn't make either of us right or wrong, though. These are value judgements.

But perhaps the worst part of all is the flawed notion that we have to figure everything out before the plan goes through. I think HoCoBlog said it best earlier in the post when referring to a different 30-year plan: “Who can predict that far out?”

Infrastructure needs to be in place to accommodate development. A plan is not development. Infrastructure does not need to be in place to approve a plan. A plan for infrastructure, perhaps, but this – I can assure – is being worked on.

The Town Center master plan is a process, and we’re still in the middle of it. Asking for outcomes before the process is finished only serves to prolong and possibly harm the process.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A housing parable...

ATTENTION: This is an extremely long and somewhat personal blog post. It is by far the longest yet and the one post that took me the longest to write. I know it’s not easy to read long stuff on a blog, but since I don’t have any other medium, this is what I have to use. Copy and paste it into Word if that helps. Or, you can always just scroll past it – I promise I won’t be offended.

We’ve been over the fact that I have a tendency to write about my personal life on this blog. I try to stick with Howard County stuff, but since one of my main motivations for starting this was to make myself a better writer, any practice is helpful. What’s more, anecdotes are a good way to convey a message and -- though I am a strong believer in backing up claims with real data -- sometimes can be used to make inferences about broader topics, such as Howard County.

So why the preface/disclaimer? I’m going to talk about something that is both personal and potentially revealing. Revealing in the sense that if you know me but don’t know I’m Hayduke, chances are you’ll make the connection after reading this (if not, you’re sure to find out soon enough). This will also explain where I was during the well-attended (by bloggers, at least) candidate forum last Wednesday.

April 5, 2006 was a pretty big day in the Hayduke household. It involved one of those “big steps” in life -- a suburbanite’s rite of passage, like graduating from high school, getting married or buying your first house, which is what we did.

Affordable Housing? But how?

The housing market in Howard County has gone gangbusters over the last five years. And for a young married couple with negative wealth (student loans) and earning, uh, less than Howard County median household income, finding an affordable house is not easy. But, if you read the papers or talk to just about anyone, you probably already know that. You probably also know that creating more affordable housing in this county has become a priority for many, including me.

Though support for affordable housing is strong, there is little consensus about how it should be created. Some say we need to force developers to provide it by setting aside a certain percentage of all the new houses they build for buyers in predetermined income brackets. This method, known as inclusionary zoning, is pretty popular in the affordable housing world, but I’m not completely sold on its ability to make a significant dent in the overall need.

Others say we need more publicly financed affordable housing, which in order to make a real impact would seriously tax our local government’s resources. By all means, however, lobby the Feds to throw more money at housing.

Still more claim that we should focus on building a wider range of housing, so options are available and affordable for everyone, regardless of their income bracket. This is the approach I am most supportive of, and not surprisingly, it was the same approach used by Jim Rouse when he built Columbia.

And, yet again, I have Jim Rouse to thank for making my life better. But first, some more background.

The Long and Winding Road

The path we took to purchasing our home seemed, for a time, endless. Abbzug and I were in the market for a house for a long while, but considering our financial position, “in” the market might not be the best description. More appropriately, we watched housing prices spiral upwards for a few years, losing a little bit of hope with each new day.

Renewing the lease on our apartment last year was a concession, of sorts – a personal admission that either we’ll be stuck renting in Howard County – where we’ve both lived for more than half our lives and where we both consider we “grew up” – or be forced to move somewhere else, which neither of us really wanted to do for the obvious reason that Howard County, or more specifically, Columbia, is The Greatest Place on Earth. Well, it’s at least one of them. Also, this blog is about Howard County, and it would be pretty lame to write about a county that I don’t live in, right?

Maybe our standards were too high, though. Certainly, we could find something, right? A condo, perhaps? An older house that needed some TLC? Although the prices of both were not really in our budget, there were other reasons we didn’t go for one. Perfect for some, condos were pretty much out of the question for us because, well, we’re products of the suburbs. It’s hard wired into our very existence to have a garden/yard, and we both are fond of our privacy – in case you couldn’t tell. Moreover, we’re both pretty handy and enjoy the work involved in maintaining a home. And finally, there’s the dog, who has grown weary of only having a small balcony on which to enjoy the outdoors. Since we’ll always have a biggish dog – another one of those hard wired things – having a yard, even a small one, is essential.

As for older houses, we looked at a bunch online but only one in person. The only one we could reasonably afford, the older house we toured was built in 1813, had a shower with 5 foot ceilings, and was in need of significant work, much of which we couldn’t do on our own and couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do.

Our rental concession notwithstanding, Abbzug still spent the bulk of her free time over the last few years trolling the websites of realtors, an exercise that was at once informative and discouraging. We also had realtor friends who kept an eye out for us, but to no avail. In short, we knew what was out there and none of it was for us.

The problem, however, was that we were going about it the wrong way. The free market clearly wasn’t for us. But what if we left the market out of it?

Dumb Luck, Divine Intervention or Part of the Plan?

How about all three? Dumb luck presented us with an opportunity to buy a house that met our “high” standards at a discounted price; discounted because the sellers are people we know, and realtors, who I have nothing against, were thankfully left out of the equation entirely. Fate – or rather my employer – also played a role in making all the numbers work – a raise came through at the most perfect of times.

But how was it part of the plan? Enter the vision of Jim Rouse.

Rouse, as most of us know, planned Columbia as a place where everybody could live. He built single-family homes, townhouses, apartments, condos, duplexes and anything else that would serve his goals of creating a diverse community, one where ZIP codes didn’t determine who lived where. While offering a range of different housing types was essential to realizing this vision, equally important was providing an array of sizes. As made clear above, Abbzug and I wanted the suburban dream (still more on that later), a single-family house. Size was, for the most part, irrelevant – it’s just the two of us and the dog (for a couple years, anyway).

It used to be there were housing options known as starter homes. Maybe you’ve heard of these relics. As is pretty clear from the name, they were designed for people like Abbzug and I and as such, are small, inexpensive and offer the chance for first-time buyers to build some equity and learn the ropes of homeownership. Sadly, they’ve gone out of favor, as developers focus on building bigger and bigger houses, regardless of type (see: 3000 square foot townhouses). Of course, developers aren’t entirely to blame, our zoning system makes it difficult to build – much less turn a profit on – small houses on small lots. Fear of density, I suppose.

Anyway, because Rouse wrote the zoning for Columbia, he could pretty much do what he wanted. Which he did when he built the neighborhood I’m moving into – the same one my parents almost moved into when they were at the same stage in life that I’m at now. Our section of Oakland Mills (that’s right, I’m coming to your neck of the woods, OMers) is comprised of small, contemporary, but not flashy, houses. Some of the models are larger and many folks have expanded, but the house Abbzug and I purchased is smaller than our apartment, a perfect-for-us 850 square feet, give or take a few, with two bedrooms and one bath. In short, it is the elusive, extinct starter house.

The idea that first time homebuyers need thousands of square feet of living space strikes me as completely misguided and the source of so much of our struggles in making housing more affordable in Howard County. The affordable housing programs we have in place require developers to build their reduced-price houses to almost the exact specifications, including size, of their market rate units. But this is the same program that developers claim is killing their profits and that the rest of us claim, rightly, is barely making a dent in the need. The new proposed affordable housing bill (I think) even spells out rather large minimum sizes for the reduced-rate units.

So, we press on but make no progress, and those who can’t afford housing and aren’t lucky enough to have their name drawn from the hat to buy one of these few reduced-price houses are left out.

“It’s not profitable.” “Density is unacceptable.” “We can’t change the zoning.” “We’re out of land.” Hogwash.

Do you want more affordable housing? Do you want places for young professionals, teachers, fire fighters, service workers, and the next generation to live? Do you want to extend the benefits of homeownership to as many people as possible? Do you want a county that includes rather than excludes? Well, then it’s time to stop rearranging deck chairs and start building more, and more truly diverse, houses in more appropriate locations (read: not the rural west).

Jim Rouse was onto something – something that was later tainted by those who replaced him. (You don’t see any starter houses in the newer villages. Trust me, I looked.) Why have we yet to learn what he knew over forty years ago? Why have we failed to see that what worked in the past – at least until Columbia approached build-out and development came to a halt in the county – is the same approach we should be using now? My story alone isn’t proof enough. But it is something, and I guarantee you, it is not unique. It was, after all, part of the plan, with a little luck and fate thrown in. But it’s time fate threw us – well, Abbzug – something more than just monkey wrenches.

What Really Matters?

In every life, there should be balance. Good things happen, bad things happen, and we just deal with it and move on. It’s all you can do, I suppose. There is no one who has not endured difficulties, regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or how much they make. Comparing one person’s trials with another’s is, at best, foolhardy. But we still do it.

At the risk of providing too much information or being too foolhardy, I’ll just say that Abbzug’s been through her share of life’s trials. Only through her astounding personal strength has she been able to cope and persevere. Someone like me would have given up long ago. It is a testament to my good looks and tremendous sense of humor that she bothered marrying someone as weak-willed as me. I thank her daily for this.

Buying this house meant more to Abbzug than I could possibly express on a blog. Despite the constant letdown of the Homes For Sale section of the classifieds, she pressed on, taking what we had and what we hoped (and a little bit of good luck…for once) and making it reality.

My debt to her will surely outlast our debt to the mortgage people. Never, however, have I been so happy to owe so much.

Sunday Round Up: Masters edition...

...and Tiger's in the hunt.

Say what you will about golf and particularly the patriarchal Augusta National Golf Club -- host of the Masters Tournament -- but there is something about Jim Nantz ("Hello friends"), azaleas, the Amen Corner, and irredeemably ugly green sport coats that makes this one special. Then again, I'm a sucker for sentimentalism, and that, it seems, is what this one's all about.

Back to our neck of the woods, things seem pretty quiet, which is good for me. Here's the requisite rundown.

The Planning Board barely approved the county's request for funding for improvements at the Belmont Conference Center. The divisions among the board were sharp, with a couple members really taking the county to task for not having a clearly-defined plan for how it would spend the money. If only they could be this critical when reviewing plans submitted by developers.

More on Merdon's Mystery. Following councilman Chris Merdon's introduction of a smoking ban bill that he doesn't support and that is nearly identical to the one he helped kill a few months ago, everyone -- including myself -- is still trying to figure out why? This passage is the most sensible take I've seen...

Glenn E. Schneider, legislative chairman of Smoke Free Howard County, had a theory for Merdon's surprise move.

"He wasn't sure if the exec [Robey] or Ken would wait until September or October to do this," he said.

If they did, Schneider reasoned, smoking would become a campaign issue just as the public began focusing on politics. Merdon's choices then would be to vote for a Democrat-sponsored bill or vote against a popular ban, he said.

This way, Schneider said, the issue will be done and gone by fall, and Merdon can at least claim he initiated action even if he votes against the bill.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have seized the opportunity to throw a little old-fashioned Republican rhetoric at their chief opponent, unitedly calling him a flip flopper.

I'm actually sorry I missed this. Local high school students organized a film festival to show off their work. Titled HOCO, the event took place last Wednesday at Howard Community College. Congratulations to all those who participated. Now let's see more stuff like this.

Got something to say about the police department? Here's your chance.

That's all for now, folks.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Friday fun...

I almost decided to not update the blog again until Sunday, but like a preacher needs pain…

Remember those developments in Town Center that were never annexed into Columbia? Well, tonight you can finally sleep easy again.

This is strange. Local police are investigating one of there own for allegedly setting off fireworks. I’m usually a strong advocate for fireworks, believing that they bring great joy to the young and young at heart and occasionally help with removal of unwanted fingers. That said, things have been pretty dry around here, and indiscriminately launching roman candles off your balcony doesn’t seem like the most intelligent thing to do. But I’m not here to judge. I’m here to ask what is going on with this:

Police launched the investigation after a 2:20 a.m. incident March 11 in which Officer Kevin Layman admitted to igniting fireworks from the balcony of his apartment, according to a police report on the incident.

Police also are investigating officers Christopher Williams and James Zamillo in connection with the incident, the report states.

…The police report, which was written by Sgt. Joe Gibbons, mentions that Layman had a "moderate odor of an alcoholic beverage" on his breath and that Zamillo was spitting tobacco into a coffee cup. Gibbons also wrote that the neighbor who called in the complaint had written a "thesis paper" on "ethics" for the University of Baltimore that he was willing to provide to the police department's Internal Affairs Division.
Maybe the Flier’s cherry picking the report for the best parts, but I’m having trouble seeing why chewing tobacco and a “thesis paper” are even being brought up. Is there something I’m missing? Weird story.

The Flier editorial board notes that politicians are doing things for political gain. All I want to know is who’s going to tell the children?

Apple Computers is now allowing its perfect machines to be infected with Windows XP. What say you, Machater?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Candidate Forum Reax Round Up...

Leave it to the bloggers to do a better job covering the candidate forum than the old media. Actually, I can’t really say bloggers had “better” coverage, as their’s was the only coverage of the event – although the local reporter for the Baltimore Examiner was apparently in attendance.

I was the only Howard County blogger to not attend the festivities. Despite my strong desire to watch the maturity level in the room drop as the questions dragged on, I thought having all four of us in the same place at the same time might result in a “crossing the streams” scenario, something you only want to invoke with the totality of human existence hangs in the balance.

Actually, that’s not why I didn’t go and neither was my fear of revealing my tightly-guarded true identity (I have many disguises for that). I didn’t go because, quite simply, I had something much more important going on (and yes, there are things more important than local politics…I think). If I told you what I was doing, you would surely agree with my decision, but some of my anonymity would likely fade at the same time. One day, maybe soon, I’ll stop playing this game and come out with it, at which time I’ll share with you the fuzzy details of my absence from the forum and blogging last night.

Anyway, so what went down? David Wissing and Howard County Blog #1 have posted lengthy recaps, while Evan Coren at Howard County Blog #2 promises more details tonight. From what I gather, there wasn’t much new on the county executive front. Here’s Wissing’s take:

…Merdon and Ulman began the question and answer period attacking each other and pretty much kept it up throughout the entire forum. Merdon mainly focused on Ulman’s lack of management experience while Ulman spent most of his time criticizing Merdon’s past votes on a myriad of topics. Frankly, it is stuff I’ve heard over and over again from both sides, so there really wasn’t anything new for me to really learn.
That’s not terribly surprising. When you spend as much time following local politics as we do, things begin to sound a little repetitive. HCB1, on the other hand, highlighted a question about leadership.
Merdon sounded like someone who has been managing a great deal of people for a long time. The principles he articulated (rather easily as an experienced manager should).

Lead by example. The people one leads look and expect that in a leader so don’t shy away from it. Set annual goals, reach out and communicate with employees, set direction but seek input so all employees feel that they own the goals and the results. In Government it is slightly different. The County Executive also has to lead the citizens and that requires disappointing some people some times, especially when hard decisions are required. Merdon launched into his resume and management experience in a Fortune 500 company, and the difficulty of managing over 2,000 county employees and 23 various departments, and a $1 billion budget.

Ulman thinks that character is more important than management experience. He would appoint strong directors to the County Agencies. Sorry, a very weak answer. Yes, character counts – Merdon has a great deal of character. Harry Dunbar is a character. Character is not leadership.
Lost in my snarky post from last week about a different candidate forum was my belief that Merdon’s leadership “dog” just won’t hunt. Business management experience does not guarantee one will be an effective leader, nor does it guarantee one will have any idea how to handle the different management style of government. Leadership is for the most part a quality that either you have or you don’t. Managing is something you can learn.

We have plenty of people managing our county government, but we only have one person leading it. It is up to the leader – the county executive – to ensure that we have the right managers, not to oversee the actions of every individual employee. Bureaucracy breeds over- or micro-management. In short, we don’t need more management. We need more leadership. Let’s not confuse the two.

I’m glad to see that both bloggers were glad to see the issue of politicizing the county website was only briefly touched upon. Let’s just forget it was even brought up.

I’m also glad to see they both had interesting takes on Harry Dunbar, someone I assume neither has had the opportunity to see before. As you can see above, HCB1 refers to him kindly as “character,” while Wissing had this to say:
Meanwhile, and I hate to say this about someone running for office because I am sure he really believes what he is saying, but Harry Dunbar pretty much provided the comic relief for the night and not much else. Dunbar’s entire campaign is based on one issue, slow growth, and spent the entire debate criticizing both Ulman and Merdon for their votes and touting his website.
I find it hard to be critical about Dunbar for the same reason Wissing does: he is refreshingly earnest. But that doesn’t make him right.

Following the portion of the forum involving the county executive candidates, the candidates for the District 5 council seat took the stage, and HCB1 even got to act as a moderator. For more about this portion, I’m afraid you’re going to have to go straight to the horses' mouths, here and here and, soon enough, here. For now, I have to run.