Monday, July 31, 2006

Freedom of choice...

I'm glad to see the increased participation and dialogue among my fellow Howard Countians on this blog -- even if most disagree with me. That said, managing the discussion -- or even keeping up with it -- is becoming, well, unmanageable.

I mostly follow comments by having each one forwarded to my email inbox, which looks like this:

Keeping up with each discussion, which can involve just one or sometimes many Anonymouses, ain't easy. The lack of aliases also makes discussion for other commenters difficult.

The time has come to do something about it.

Now, as I've stressed many times before, I'm not going to force people to come out and say who they really are. I have no moral authority on that issue. But I am going to have to impose some speech restrictions -- namely, everyone needs a nickname.

There are two ways we can do this, and I'll let you, through the power of democracy, decide which to use. First, I can set up comments so only those registered with blogger can comment. Registering with blogger is as easy as setting up an account with any other online community. You go to, enter a user name, password and email address, put as little information as you want in a profile and you're done. The email address is not public and you can set your profile private to maintain your anonymity (for an example of how to make an anonymous profile, see mine).

The second way to do this is for me to turn on comment moderation. This means that before any comment is posted to the blog, I have to approve it. Under this scenario, you would have the same options for commenting that you have now. That is, you can sign in under a Blogger account, you can make up a nickname on the spot or you can post as "Anonymous." If this is the preferred method, I will not approve "Anonymous" comments.

Since its a democracy and everyone gets a vote, here's mine: the first one. I say this for two reasons. One, it's less work for me. Two, I want to keep things on the blog as transparent as possible. Forcing me to approve comments takes away some of that transparency.

I would note that most blogs, including both Howard County Blog and David Wissing, require you to enter an alias of some kind before commenting.

So as we Democrats like to say, vote early and vote often in the comment section of this post. I'll leave the polls open until around this time tomorrow.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lazy Columbia post...

The downtown Focus Group is nearing the end of its existence and much is still up in the air. According to The Sun:

After months of meetings, wide disparity remains on key issues, not the least of which is the vision for the downtown area.

That was apparent again Thursday as the 23-member, county-appointed focus group debated the specificity it should demand and consider.

On one side is the proposition that the group should limit itself to "the big vision," leaving the details to others.

"The purpose here is what do we want in downtown," said Richard B. Talkin, a board member and attorney, whose clients include some of the largest developers in the region.

"We should not get that detailed," he said. "We're here to talk about vision: What do we want downtown to be and how do we get there?"

On the other side are those who claim the details are necessary before one can prudently determine whether the vision is socially, environmentally and fiscally acceptable.

"We should look at the big picture, but we've got to look at the smaller stuff, too," said Cynthia Coyle, a panelist and member of the Columbia Association board of directors.

If there's any confusion about where I stand, here is part of a letter to the editor I wrote the week before the charrette that generally still reflects how I feel:

Beneath a typically suburban veneer, Columbia is a unique community. Unlike other cities that were founded on the needs of commerce or the whims of developers, the foundation of our community is a set of guiding principles, which coalesced into an ambitious vision. Based on his experiences and exceptional foresight, James Rouse envisioned a community that is inclusive, instead of exclusive; that integrates life’s essentials, instead of relegating them to the fringes or ignoring them entirely; that connects, instead of alienates; and that fosters growth, instead of complacency. From this foundation, our community was born, and will be reborn. Only this time, we must provide the vision.

...My only fear is that, in the midst of the chaos at Wilde Lake High School on October 15, we may lose our bearings. While there is certainly a need to discuss the layout of the streets, commercial square footage, and the optimum number of residential units, focusing on these details may distract us from the guiding principles that define our community. As important as our ideas about the future may be, our ideals are even more so.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Complex problems, simple solutions...

Doug Miller's column from yesterday's Flier embodies the kind of small thinking that creates more problems than it solves.

I don't want to get into a line by tedious line fisking, but I will mention a couple smaller problems I have with it before I get to the meat of what I want to say.

First, his characterization of those pressing for greater equity in our county as "squawking" for more affordable housing is unfair at best and mean at worst. But he's entitled to unfettered use of his thesaurus.

Second, his belief that "Howard County has not been strict enough in curbing housing growth" is his own, but the anecdotes he uses to support this house don't stand up to rigorous analysis. Overcrowded schools? Traffic? Leaving aside the fact that much of our traffic is a result of growth in Frederick and Carroll Counties, the notion that "a tour of any number of county schools" is enough to show you growth is a problem just doesn't stand up, especially considering the overcrowding situation seems to be taken care of.

Also, he complains that government "officials need more money" to keep services going. Funny, didn't we just cut property taxes?

We can argue all night about the proper rate of growth -- and indeed, his assessment is subjective -- but the conversation only benefits from a little more data and a little less anecdote. See, for instance, comments on this post.

Enough with the small stuff, however. The overarching purposes of Miller's column are to describe a "policy paradox" and to offer a solution. The paradox, he says, is that government officials in central Maryland are putting the brakes on housing growth at the same time they're actively pursuing economic development, meaning, as The Sun told us in three parts earlier this week, we're soon to have more jobs than houses. And The Sun's analysis didn't include any of the jobs from the military base realignment, which means their estimate of a shortage of 100,000 homes by 2030 is likely conservative.

Miller's solution, which echoes some of the sentiments I've heard from others, is simple:

Maybe the question is not whether to ratchet up jobs or housing, but whether to encourage both to cool down.

The local economy seems to be humming along just fine. Would it kill us to let some jobs go to West Virginia (or western Maryland, even)?

Who knows, it might just save us.

That's it? Send the jobs to West Virginia? If only he spent as much time thinking about a solution as he did thinking about a concise, clever way to end his narrative.

The problems I see with his solution are many, and I'm probably missing at least half of them.

From a snarky perspective, shifting west jobs slated for Fort Meade -- and, by extension, the civilian jobs they support -- is impossible because Fort Meade exists at a specific spatial location, which isn't in West Virginia or even western Maryland. But, that's just snark.

From a pragmatic perspective, don't you think people who live in West Virginia are going to be just as opposed to development as we are here, if not more so (hold on, let me ask my mom...Yes!)?

What about infrastructure? We at least have an infrastructure system that can be expanded much easier than building an entirely new system somewhere else. Economies of scale and all that. Effective public transit is at least foreseeable here, but there, not so much.

What about the environment? It seems to me that much of the damage around here is done. The environmental cost of additional growth in an urban or suburban setting is considerably less than it is in more rural, agricultural areas, where we stand to repeat the great destruction of open spaces that's already happened here. Moreover, given political will and market demand, the use of "green" building practices is more likely here than out there.

What about the fact that much of this growth in employment is completely beyond our control? BRAC's decisions have been made. We need to deal with them.

What about choice? Shouldn't companies at least have some power in deciding where they want to locate. And shouldn't landowners have at least some say in what happens on their property?

More than anything, Miller's column seems like a cop-out, a justification to shift our problems somewhere else. Much of us love Howard County, in part, because of its location, which is also perhaps the only attribute we have no control over. And the problems location pose -- that others want to live and work here, too -- are not ones we can simply ignore, which is, unfortunately, all he seems to recommend.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Cool bird sightings for the week...

How about something a little lighter?

This has been a banner week for me, at least in terms of bird sightings.

Anyone who knows me or has read this blog long enough knows that I've got a thing (genetic predisposition? sentimental attachment?) for birds that kill other things -- specifically, mammals and other birds. I think its a guilt-free way to get my death-fix.

Anyway, there are plenty of raptors patrolling the skies over central Maryland -- spend a couple minutes outside on any given day and you're bound to see at least one vulture, which technically don't satisfy my preferences; that is, they don't kill anything. Seeing a hawk isn't particularly rare, either, assuming you're at least partially keeping an eye out for one.

However, this Sunday, while playing kickball at Stevens Forest Elementary, one of these guys descended on our game and hung around awhile to watch.

That's a broad-winged hawk. It is not uncommon to see them in our area, but the behavior of our visitor was what stood out to me. He first swooped over the field, landing on a goal post that was actually rather close to where we were playing (about 40 feet beyond first base). After looking out over the scene for a minute or so, he took off, circling low over the field and eventually landing on the grass further away from us (maybe 150 feet from third base). There, he stood and occasionally walked around for quite some time. His presence and courage were certainly welcome treats for my birthday.

The second significant bird of prey sighting happened just a few hours ago on my way to band practice in Annapolis. As I was merging from I-97 onto Route 50, I noticed a large, dark bird flying towards the highway from the right. We converged at the same point, and as I drove underneath the bird, it became clear what I was looking at:

I don't think there's any need to explain what that is.

Bald eagles are becoming more prevalent around the Chesepeake Bay, and seeing them is becoming less novel. Nevertheless, this was only the third time I've seen one, only the second time I've been close enough to recognize it without the aid of binoculars. And the other times were in dramatically more "natural" settings: once in Yellowstone (in the winter) and once in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern shore of Maryland (here they were far away).

I don't really have anything profound to say about this other than it's great to see these truly wild creatures living so closely and comfortably with humans (there's hope for us, yet) and, in the case of the eagle, it's good to know they've recovered so dramatically since Silent Spring (there's hope for us, yet).

UPDATE: I probably should have said earlier that the pictures are not mine. I found them courtesy of Google.

Spaghetti O...

Doug Miller -- columnist for the Flier/Times -- delves into the realm of growth today with a piece about The Sun's housing shortage series from earlier this week. Now, I disagree with almost everything he says, but I figured I'd give you a chance to comment first (really, I don't have time to write anything...but that's an excuse I've used far too often recently).

Comp Lite appeal denied...

The Examiner reports today that Maryland's Court of Appeals denied the Comp Lite referendum case. The story is short on details about the court's reasoning for the decision, but it does say that COPE will continue to fight the legislation enabling the zoning changes.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I (heart) Suburban Life...

I know, this is a cheap way to get a new post up on the blog, but I'm trying to squeeze in some mountain biking and "work" work this evening. So, it'll have to do.

Following yesterday's post on The Sun's three-part series on the growing jobs-housing imbalance, a couple commenters posted their thoughts, which I'd like to respond to here. It should be noted that I didn't really offer any opinions in the post, other than to say growth pressure will mount and we're going to have to deal with it.

After I said that growing the "right" way could maintain or even increase our quality of life, a commenter responded:

Expecting quality of life to be able to either increase or remain constant when dealing with this kind of growth is an unrealistic pipedream. Cost of living will go up, congestion will go up, pollution will go up, crime unfortunately will go up.
But all of these problems -- except, maybe, crime -- will go up even if we don't grow. Growth from surrounding counties will surely cause congestion to increase. As anyone who travels Interstate 70 or Route 32 during rush hour can tell you, new houses in other counties are the source of much of our traffic. Increased traffic and development are also significant sources of air and water pollution, which we lose the opportunity to mitigate if the cause is from outside the county.

As for cost of living, stopping growth will increase the cost of housing -- by far the largest chunk of cost of living. With fewer affordable housing choices, those earning less than median wages -- many of whom work in service- and retail-related jobs -- and even some making more than median will be forced to live elsewhere, causing (again) more traffic. What's more, many of these workers will demand higher pay to compensate for the additional burden of commuting, which will also push prices (cost of living) up.

I'm not sure about crime, however. I would say that growth is probably less of a factor in crime than are other things.

Growth, however, is not all bad. The reason I said we could possibly increase our quality of life is because I generally think we can. We are not perfect. We have room for improvement. We could stand to have more restaurants, more entertainment and cultural choices, better public transit, and even more jobs. And some amount of growth is key to bringing these things to our county.

The other comment on yesterday's post mentioned ways of turning around Baltimore's fortunes, which would presumably make the city more attractive to more prospective homeowners. Although I strongly root for the city's recovery, the reality is that many people will still want to live in Howard County, regardless of how nice Baltimore becomes. Just as many people still want to live in Montgomery County even though living in DC has improved remarkably in the last 10 years.

City life isn't for everyone, and many of the new workers forecasted to move to this area will put significant pressure on our county's housing stock.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Region-wide housing shortage...

The Baltimore Sun today finished its three part series on the "Impending housing shortage" in our region (Part I, Part II, Part III). An analysis of growth trends in jobs and houses, the lengthy and exhaustive feature includes a wealth of information about the future of our region, which is slated for a surge in employment and a significant reduction in homebuilding.

There is much that I want to say about this, but it will take a while to crystallize my thoughts and put them into a coherent narrative. For now, though, here's a quick summary of the series with a few interesting excerpts.

Part I lays out the situation. Here are a few key paragraphs:

A Sun analysis of state job and household forecasts found the metro area - Baltimore and its five suburban counties - would be 20,000 homes short in just four years. By 2030, the region would be 100,000 homes shy - as many dwellings as Howard County has now, to put that in perspective.

The gap could be even larger because the state forecasts include just a portion of the jobs expected from the national military base reshuffling.

Experts say the disparity will over time further pressure housing costs in an area that has seen steep price increases in the past few years, outpacing many other regions. The shortage would probably push workers into ever-longer commutes, clogging highways and local roads. Ultimately, some say, the housing crunch could choke job growth and throw the region into a recession.

"There is a price to be paid for constrained supply," said Nicolas P. Retsinas, director of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Part II addresses proposed and creative solutions, mainly from the perspective of suburban counties:
Land-use professionals, smart-growth proponents, academics and others suggest a variety of ways to avert a head-on collision between solid job growth and increasingly restrictive homebuilding regulations.

Old suburban strip centers, boarded-up city blocks, vast parking lots, empty land around transit stations - all could be transformed into compact housing developments so workers don't have to live far from their jobs, they say. Adding substantially to the supply also could provide more starter houses.

But most of the potential fixes have a common denominator, experts agree: They can't happen without changes to local policies and the political will to make those changes.

"There seems to be an assumption that metropolitan growth patterns are the result of a free market," said Robert Puentes, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Nothing can be further from the truth. It's the regulatory regimes in place that are actually causing this development and growth to happen. ... There is a real opportunity to do something different."
Finally, Part III looks at Baltimore City's role in all of this.
This could be the city's best chance yet for a comeback - if it can capitalize on it.

"The opportunity is here now," said Sandy Marenberg, whose Marenberg Enterprises Inc. has been building in the city for 30 years. "I think Baltimore City is on the verge."

Sandy Hillman, who as an official in Mayor William Donald Schaefer's administration was active in early efforts to revive the city, was stunned by the inherent potential of such a large housing shortage. It suggests to her that Baltimore "will prosper in a way that we've sort of been chasing for decades," she said.

There's no guarantee. Baltimore still has to overcome major challenges that helped to drive residents away. One of the most violent cities in the nation, it has a chronically underperforming school system, rampant drug addiction and the highest property tax rate in the state. It must make headway on a variety of fronts if it hopes to attract large numbers of residents and keep them, experts say.

A housing shortage that limits options in Baltimore's five suburban counties isn't by itself enough to entice local workers into the city, because they can push outward - to Pennsylvania, the Eastern Shore or Delaware. And they're already doing so.

These are only excerpts. The full stories are chock full of good information and analysis. It takes a while to get through all three, but I highly recommend taking the time to read them.

My quickie take is: This is an issue where burying our heads in the sand is not going to work. We need a regional approach that emphasizes the potential of Baltimore to absorb more residential growth -- improving the Greatest City in America can only be good for us, as well. That said, Baltimore is not the silver bullet.

Given consumer preferences and the city's preexisting conditions, residential growth pressure in the suburbs will only increase with jobs multiply. If done right, we can maintain or even increase the quality of life we enjoy here. If done wrong, we will undoubtedly suffer.

Now, if only there were instructions on how to do it right...

Monday, July 24, 2006

Moonday Round Up...

After a busy, briefly tumultuous but ultimately enjoyable weekend, I have a worse than usual case of the Mondays. The joys of yesterday -- Tiger’s win, Floyd Landis at the Tour de France, a new grill, and Cornhole domination -- have been replaced with the grim reality that more fun is five (well, now four) days away.

Of course, maybe it’s the fact that the countdown to 30 is officially underway.

Anyway, someone once told me the best way to get through a rough Monday is to throw on some chaps and spurs, grab the trusty lasso, and Round Up some news.

I’m not sure if they will achieve the intended results, but the Columbia Association’s proposed procedural changes sound like a good way to better reach residents and to divide responsibilities for an often over-burdened board. But then, part of me thinks that at this point, any change is a good one for CA.

The end of civility? H. Gregory Torantore, vice-chairman of the Planning Board and (apparently) all-around good guy, has left his post in favor of a more relaxing one at his retirement cabin in Virginia.

Yet more chain restaurants coming to Columbia. Not only do we have fewer restaurants than population and demographics would dictate, but in my entirely subjective analysis, those we do have are generally pretty bland, if not bad (there are exceptions). The three new ones coming to Gateway Overlook will do little to tip the balance, I'm afraid.

That's it for today!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Getting your day in court...

The Sun has two stories today about legal challenges to zoning and development decisions. Both cases are well-known -- Comp Lite referendum and the Plaza tower in Town Center -- so I won't rehash all the details. In fact, I don't really feel like writing another post about either issue since the basic facts of each are still the same.

Really, all I want to say is: There has to be a cheaper way for us to settle disputes like these.

More endorsements...

This time from the Police union, whose approved list of candidate is identical to that of the teacher's union. They are, according to the Examiner:

» Courtney Watson, D, for the District 1 council seat

» Calvin Ball, D, for District 2 seat

» Jen Terrasa, D, for District 3 seat

» Joshua Feldmark, D, for District 4 seat

» Wayne Livesay, R, for District 5 seat

» Kenneth Ulman, D, for county executive

Not a very surprising list, to be sure.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


Rather than subject you to a tedious introduction about the British Open or yet more excuses for why I’m skimping on word production, I’ll jump right in with the brief, wholly unsupported commentary you’ve come to expect from a Hayduke Round Up.

The silliness with the Lake Elkhorn tot lot continues. In a near perfect display of what it means to “pass the buck,” the Columbia Association Board of Directors placed the Owen Brown Village Board in charge of soliciting opinions on various proposals for the playground from residents. But, wait, what about this:

The village does not have any authority to request that a barrier be placed at the Columbia Association-owned playground, though it is expected to share residents' comments with members of the CA board of directors. The CA board could then decide to follow residents' wishes.
So why do they have to drag the village board into this? It’s as if they want everyone to share their self-inflicted pain.

A quick word of advice to CA from someone who initially didn’t support the fence: Build it already and be done with all of this!

In this otherwise uneventful story about the mediation idea, one sentence stood out: “[Councilman Calvin] Ball cited Berkeley, Calif., and Boise, Idaho, as cities successfully using mediation in zoning issues.” Wow, are there two places (that seem) more diametrically opposite than Berkeley and Boise? Having never been to Boise, my question is certainly based more on preconceptions than experience. I have, however, been to Idaho, which counts for something. Also, I know that Boise State has a blue Astroturf football field, which doesn’t count for much.

A comment on a letter to the editor in today’s Flier by Wilde Lake Village Board member and notorious rabble-rouser (which I mean in a good way) Mary Pivar, who probably disagrees with me on how much importance we ascribe to the downtown traffic study (but that’s another matter…focus!).

She says: “Public reaction has revealed it to be unacceptable to approve development before the necessary infrastructure is in place, which includes water and sewage upgrades in addition to school and road requirements.” At this risk of annoying some people, building infrastructure in anticipation of development, especially distantly future development, is as bad as not building any new infrastructure after development occurs. It forces existing residents to pay more than their fair share for the infrastructure improvements (bond buyers won’t wait for our tax base to increase before expecting payments). It runs the risk of being underutilized for many years (perhaps forever, depending on the real estate markets), as developers will still have considerable say of what gets built and when – regardless of how much we plan. Plus, building now means we’ll be using 2006 technology to accommodate new infrastructure needs in 2020 or 2030.

Now, I would agree that we need a good plan for infrastructure improvements before we approve new development, but that’s a whole lot cheaper and less risky than undertaking massive infrastructure upgrades.

Following two recent (and somewhat strange) incidents at Howard County General Hospital, Police Chief William McMahon and councilman Ken Ulman will discuss security issues at an upcoming meeting. Although neither incident resulted in any serious problems, it’s probably a good idea to go over security policies and protocols, just in case coincidental timing turns into something more.

Finally, how about a Ravens-Redskins Super Bowl?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Back in the saddle?

My mental absence or recent aversion to controversy has not gone unnoticed. Verses have been penned, lamentations expressed, and gauntlet thrown. The fluff pieces of the past couple weeks, it seems, weren't meaty enough for some -- although the post about Metro and Personal Rapid Transit drew several comments, many of which, I think, were from non-Howard County transit partisans.

Anyway, I want to quickly respond to a few things written over the last couple days about the zoning reforms being pushed by the council Democrats. As I've said before, I am supportive of what they are trying to do, even though these are only tweaks to a system in need of a full-scale overhauling. And, though I understand why the council Democrats took the larger proposed changes off the table, I think that to a large part the criticism they received for their plan was unwarranted. But, then, I also think that council members who dealt with numerous controversial and sticky zoning cases -- Maple Lawn, Town Center, Comp Zoning and Comp Lite -- would do a better job at amending the process than a group of newbies. But, political realities dictated otherwise, which is the way it goes.

More specifically, I want to respond to David Keelan's post in response to The Sun's story about Monday's hearing on the zoning bills. It sounds like those who offered testimony at the hearing, including Keelan, generally supported most of the proposed changes, but not without offering several suggestions for how to tweak the tweaks. The Democratic sponsors of the bills responded to the Sun thusly:

“We’re going to take the feedback and make them better,” said east Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball

The idea of using voluntary mediation in Zoning Board cases took the most fire from a baker’s dozen speakers, and Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, suggested changing that bill.

Added Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat: “We’ll work through potential changes.”

It sounds like they're doing their jobs as legislators. That is, proposing bills, soliciting feedback, and making changes to the bills accordingly. Here's what Keelan had to say about these three quotes:

Make it better, changing the bill, and POTENTIAL changes.

Is it me? It has to be me. Am I reading something into Ulman’s words that isn’t there? Potential changes? Why are Ball and Guzzone on board with changes and Ulman will look at that potential. It comes off as arrogant.

In answer to his first two questions, yes. Parsing written policies or laws is fine, but doing so to a five-word quote without context is beyond reasonable speculation. Although I wasn't there and didn't watch the hearing on GTV, I'm pretty sure that there were numerous, non-uniform suggestions made by the participating citizens, meaning the council members should probably consider all of the potential changes and decide upon them using their best judgment, which is precisely what we elected them to do.

Now, if Keelan perceives this statement as arrogant, who am I to argue someone else's perception? But he did ask the questions.

The second thing I want to respond to regarding this slate of bills is a comment made by blog poet laureate (and I mean that honestly -- I really enjoyed your poem, Mary) Mary Smith on Keelan's blog. She says:
Does anyone really think that any member of the sitting council cares about citizen input on zoning? If so, based on what? They don’t care! Come on. None of them.
I know not everyone in Howard County is as concerned about Town Center as me or other Columbians. And I know memories are often short. But I think it's worthwhile to look back to almost exactly three years ago -- my 26th birthday to be exact -- when the first hearing was held on the Rouse Company's hubristic proposal to forge ahead with new development in Town Center against the almost unanimous wishes of the community.

During that entire process, in which I was intimately involved, both Ulman and Guzzone adamantly supported citizens and worked dilligently to ensure the ill-conceived plans of Rouse Co. (later GGP) did not move forward. They both made abundantly clear that a plan involving and supported by residents would be the only way large-scale additional development would be approved. Out of this drawn-out imbriolgio came the Columbia charrette, which was the most citizen-driven planning process this county has ever known.

Now, I know there are some who feel the citizens were shut out of or poorly informed about the charrette, that the outcomes were predetermined. I put very little stock in these arguments, mainly because of the tremendous work still being done by the Focus Group and others to craft an agreeable plan. I would also point to the fact that, after a meeting in February when citizens expressed concern about the timetable in which the plan was being developed, the county agreed to slow things down.

Hmm, there was something else I wanted to say but I forgot...

Oh yeah, the proposal to add mediation as a possible solution to developer-citizen impasses. For some reason this seems to be the most maligned of the proposed zoning changes, but I really like it. The argument against it is that zoning decisions and zoning laws are black and white and there's no need to mediate when the issues are black and white. While some are, many of these cases aren't black and white. The zoning board case involving Rouse Co.'s initial Town Center proposal wasn't clear cut and the charrette, I think, was a form of mediation.

Of course, my opinion of mediation is probably a result of my predilection for compromise (which is why I'm an awful partisan) and my belief that Euclidean zoning should be banished. But that, my friends, is a whole 'nother story.

(Note: Something went totally haywire when I ran spellchecker and a bunch of words got thrown around. I've tried to correct the multitude of errors, but let me know in comments if you spot something amiss. Thanks!)

Monday, July 17, 2006

We're Number Four! We're Number Four!

Although we just missed the podium (no doubt because of Tom Delay and his Sugar Land cronies), Howard County’s nebulous population center, apparently known as Columbia/Ellicott City, ranked fourth in Money Magazine’s list of Best Places to Live.

This is surely good news for tourism, economic development and real estate groups. For the rest of us, it’s not really news. After all, we live here.

Of course, just because objective, outside verification that We’re Awesome isn’t “news,” it doesn’t mean the praise is unwelcome. Sometimes it’s fun to bask in your awesomeness, especially when it comes at the expense of places like Rockville, which at number 26 is the next closest Maryland town on the list (take that, Dad!).

Of course, it’s also fun to know what others see as our most flattering attributes. Here, in its shameless entirety, is Money’s blurb about Our Town(s):

In 1772, the Ellicott brothers began turning a tobacco-country outpost into what would become the new country's largest flour-milling center. Almost 200 years later and not five miles down the road, legendary developer Jim Rouse began to develop Columbia as an improved alternative to cookie-cutter suburbs. Today the 160,000 residents of the neighboring communities reap the benefits of the old and new visions: Ellicott City has grand homes and a charming downtown. Columbia has park space totaling more than a third of the community's 14,000 acres, a wide selection of townhouses apartments, and a mall that's got everything.

Because the cities aren't incorporated, they share in the bounty provided by Howard County. Kids are schooled in Maryland's top-performing district, where they continually score up to 50% above average on state tests. There's a major music venue, the Merriweather Post Pavilion, in Columbia, and the county runs a 30,000-square foot arts center as well as a center for African-American culture, both located in Columbia.

There are ample employment options for residents: About a third of them work within the county at companies such as Verizon and the Johns Hopkins-affiliated Howard County General Hospital, while the remainder commute to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. "These communities offer pretty much everything you need to create quality of life," says Marion Berman, 55, who opened her art gallery at the Mall in Columbia in 1981. When it came time to expand, she moved Gallery 44 to Ellicott City. "It's a great place to work, and an even better place to live."

Columbia, one of the most racially diverse cities on our list, is 20% African American and 10% Asian. Alma Gill, 42, says she and her husband chose to move here 10 years ago, even though their old home in Alexandria, Va. was closer to her job at USA Today. "We wanted our son to grow up in an area where there are people from everywhere," Gill says, "in a place that is accepting of everyone."
Now, not to sound like a one-trick pony or anything, but how about the mention of Merriweather, huh? Music to my ears. Of course, highlighting our schools, open space, jobs and diversity isn’t bad, either.

Here’s a link
to Money’s data snapshot of Columbia/Ellicott City, a nice little feature that gives you all the relevant demographic data for your city and the “Best Places” averages, which we beat for almost everything (I particularly like the Public/Private school breakdown).

The one place, it seems, where we fare less well is median commute time – ours is almost six minutes longer than the Best Places average. Considering that the whole Baltimore/DC area is characterized by lengthy commutes, this statistic isn’t particularly noteworthy. But, still, it got me thinking.

Does anyone actually value their commute? That is, do you enjoy living a half hour or more away from work? Is the daily travel enjoyable or useful? Do you seek a clear spatial separation between work and home?

Or is a longer commute simply an additional “cost of living” you are willing to bear in order to call Columbia/Ellicott City home? To be sure, much of what makes our community desirable also makes it unique, but we’re not so different that one couldn’t similar neighborhoods closer to their work (I think).

I’m not asking these questions to be flippant. I’m honestly interested in how people decide where to live and where to work.

For me, the decision of where to work was based significantly on proximity to Columbia, where I knew I wanted to live. As such, after finishing graduate school I didn’t even consider working in DC, home to more jobs in my field – public policy – than any other place on earth.

(Although I made it through this entire post without rehashing the Columbia vs. Ellicott City debate, I would be remiss if I didn't say, on behalf of all Columbians, "you're welcome" to our northern neighbors for doing all the heavy lifting in this contest.)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Moral dilemma

I'm torn.

As much as I want to be a good citizen and follow the rules of our mandatory water restrictions (.pdf), this is one I have to break: "[You may not] Fill or top off home pools, fountains or artificial waterfalls."

I have a small fish pond in my front yard that is rapidly losing water. I first assumed evaporation was the culprit behind the falling water line, as natural forces seem to find a way in even the most artificial environments, like a plastic-lined coy pond.

The rate at which the water disappeared and the fact that the pond is generally shaded, however, led me to wonder if my pond has become the neighborhood watering hole for the foxes, raccoons, opossums, cats and other creatures brave enough to dip their mouths into a pond full of specially-trained attack fish.

Well, I wonder no more.

These two cats used to be fixtures in this yard...until we moved in. Our dog, who spends a lot of time guarding the house (read: sleeping in the yard), has kept them away for the last couple months.

The heat makes you do crazy things, I guess. And if the cats are drinking out of this pond, I'm sure other critters are, as well.

Thus, the moral dilemma is: To fill or not to fill.

Were this only a decorative pond -- and not a habitat -- filling it would be irresponsible. Because it is home to four helpless -- though, truthfully, decorative -- creatures, not filling it is even more irresponsible.

If parched wildlife also get to enjoy the benefits of my rule-breaking, well, that's just fine with me.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Tangled up in traffic

So much for clarity.

The recently released Town Center master plan traffic study – which, in deference to vehicular convenience, serves as a defining quantitative assessment of acceptable development levels – implies to the casual observer that current residential and commercial development projections either will or will not make traffic unbearable. Regardless of what it really says, however, some people still think the report is bogus, or at least irreparably flawed.

Of course, none of this is surprising. The results – namely, that more development will cause additional traffic such that existing intersections will reach a “failing” level of service – are straightforward and common sense to most, I’m sure.

The recommendations – that road improvements must be made in accordance with development, that even with road capacity enhancements traffic will increase, and that more mass transit or less development will make the overall traffic situation relatively more tenable – are, again, intuitive.

Finally, that some would object to the assumptions and framework of this analysis is, yes, to be expected.

Aside from being underwhelmed, I don’t have much of a reaction to the findings of the study. But then, to be honest, I’m less concerned about the impact of the master plan on traffic than I am the impact of traffic on the master plan.

Without questioning the need for them, placing too much importance on traffic analyses – indeed, by possibly allowing several components of the plan to be dictated almost solely by its findings – we marginalize walking, cycling and public transit as alternative means of access and transportation, to the detriment of the master plan and the future of our community.

Town Center, in my opinion, is already a great place to drive, with wide, speedy thoroughfares, (relatively) few traffic lights, and an overall lack of congestion, aside from, maybe, Christmas shopping season. It is not, however, a great place to walk or bike around, and (poorly) serves as the hub of our existing, woefully inadequate transit system.

An impetus for the whole master plan process – and a widely held belief by many who participated – was that we needed a downtown that was more pedestrian friendly, where walking was safe, enjoyable and desirable. Making it so requires sacrifice, and given an undoubtedly positive relationship between the viscosity, for lack of a better word, of vehicular traffic and walkability, we must invariably expect more congestion if our goal is to be realized. How much congestion depends entirely on our priorities.

To be sure, by weighting the needs of both equally, we can achieve a balance between pedestrians and drivers. Judging by the importance of the traffic study and the lack of a similar one for pedestrians (or even transit), however, this is not the case.

Getting around...

Did you read Evan’s proposal for bringing the Metro to HoCo? If not, do it now and come back for my (brief) take, which is:

I like the concept behind it, even though the realist (pessimist?) side of me thought it was too ambitious. Specifically, the aspect I like most is the idea of a local circulatory system that connects to the broader regional system. This provides benefits for short- and long-range commuters, as well as those who need to just get around town. Our existing system is somewhat like this, but both our in- and out-of-town options (buses and a couple commuter trains) are limited and certainly less convenient than a subway.

While I firmly support bringing the Metro to Columbia (or at least something akin to real public transportation), I have a few specific concerns with Evan’s plan. To wit:

  • Cost, mentioned above. Who pays? How much?
  • Is this more of a priority than improving Baltimore’s public transit system?
  • Do existing Columbia villages and other neighborhoods listed as potential stops have adequate populations of potential riders to make the system work?
  • Related, are these areas dense enough to make riding public transit a viable alternative (that is, would people live close enough to the stops to justify walking)? If not, and significant parking is needed, is such parking appropriate for some the neighborhoods?
  • Can we really expect, even in the 30-year time frame, county residents to use public transportation for local trips? One of Evan’s commenters said, in so many words, “No.”
  • Should we rely, as another of Evan’s commenters said, on 19th century technology for our future transportation needs? (Brining this up does not necessarily put me in the PRT camp, by the way).

Since I’m on the topic of PRT, I’ll respond to the anonymous commenter who has long extolled the virtues of Personal Rapid Transit (and who I’m tempted to start calling PRTer or something like that just to make comment section discussions easier).

Although it sounds good on paper (or, rather, in HTML), I have questions about how it would work in practice. First, do you think people would really be willing to give up their cars for Maglev pods?

How feasible – in terms of maintenance, security, cost, and citizen buy-in -- is it to have a network of these towers and tracks almost as extensive as our existing road system?

Has a functional model of this system been built? I’d be very hesitant to be the guinea pig for an unproven transit technology.

It seems to me that even though convenience (or lack thereof) is a significant reason for people not using public transit, there's also a more psychological one; namely, the lack of control. Driving gives us a lot of control (or, rather, the perception of control) over our surroundings and our fate, while sitting in a train, plane or pod places our lives under the control of some unseen operator or some faceless computer, which for some people, is enough to dissuade them from riding.

Having no control is part of what makes flying uncomfortable for me. The seats, naturally, are the other part.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Still waiting...

I had hoped to write something today, even leaving work early so I'd have more time. Actually, that's entirely untrue, but if it makes you think I'm super committed to my readers, then I say it's worth believing.

Anyway, Evan wrote a detailed proposal about bringing the Metro to Howard County. Go read it, and tell him what you think. I started writing a response but set it aside (for today) after running out of steam halfway through. And, as you know, I never post half-baked thoughts on this blog.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I'm back...

...physically, in the state of Maryland, at least. My head, meanwhile, is stuck somewhere between Bozeman and Big Sky, wondering if living out there would be even half as good as vacationing. Sure, the jobs aren't as plentiful and the pay not as good, but, damn, these seem like small prices to pay to be surrounded by natural beauty in a town that's close to perfect.

Actually, the town's horrible and the mountains ugly. Why anyone would ever want to live in that dark corner of the world is beyond me. Now excuse me while I peruse the Help Wanted section of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle... I suspected, nobody's hiring full-time bloggers. Alas.

Anyway, although I still kept up with the news and discussions, it was good to (mostly) get away from the blog for a week, perhaps too good. I'm having trouble rousing a desire to write about Howard County, but this, to some extent, predates the joyful detachment I felt while in Montana.

So, no HoCo stuff today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Although no promises were made, I though I would be able to post more than I have. Oh, w"ell, I'm not losing any sleep over the lack of posts. This is, after all, my vacation and my sister's wedding, the shower for which was tonight.

I know things are still happening "back east," many of them interesting, controversial things that make blogging fun. Instead...

Here's a guest blogging stint from my brother:

Hi, im hayduke's younger brother chris. right now hayduke is dris-unk. that's why i get to "guest blog." Here's my take on HC politics: "Think globally, act locally"
Vote for democrats because they respect people. Sometimes they dont. That's when you vote republican unless they have ties to the oil industry.
OK, that was interesting. Now, here's my mother:
The two of them just turned over the computer to me. I have no idea what they were discussing. I no longer live in Howard County, just moved to Jefferson County West Virginia (Harpers Ferry). They have a whole bunch of different political issues there, and a local activist group just managed to unseat the core of the county school board [She's underselling this election, which was far nastier than anything we see in HoCo -- ed]. So basically, the system can work on a local basis. Just so much harder to get rid of the national bastards ... Keep the faith.
Here's my wife:
(angry stare)
So, that's my family. Maybe you have a better sense of who I am, or not. If you've read this far, congratulations...and sorry. Next week, I promise, it's back to the real stuff.

For now, here's a picture from mountain biking today in Sourdough Canyon, taken with the cell phone.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


I'd first like to wish the man behind this Howard County Blog, David Keelan, the best of luck in his run for Republican Central Committee. Although I can't actually vote for him, consider this an Official Hayduke Endorsement of his candidacy.

Second, happy Independence Day! They're celebrating here in Bozeman; the chorus of fireworks -- technically illegal in the city but available at ubiquitous stands along major roads just outside of it -- went on all last night and is poised to do the same tonight. And from the balcony of the totally jive, western Victorian Hayduke Family Compound, pictured below, I've had a front row seat.

Finally, if for no other reason then the title of this post (clearly an excuse to post a picture anyway), here's a photo of the Bridgers, the mountain range just to the northeast of town, taken near the site of my sister's wedding.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Salty Sunday

Salt Lake City's not all that bad.

Of course, my concerns about the city centered largely on whether I'd be able to find good beer and something to do on a Saturday night. Since we're driving to Montana today -- the site of my sister's wedding next Saturday -- I needed only a few hours worth of distractions.

Walking from our south of downtown hotel last night, we headed towards the heart of the city -- Temple Square -- and along the way saw few fellow pedestrians. On our way back, we stopped at a local brew pub that was one of the best I've ever been to. Great beer, ambiance and outlook on environmental sustainability.

Because I'm on vacation, I'm not really in the mood to stir up controversy. I could write about how I'm glad to see the council Democrats are doing something to make our zoning process more accommodating for citizens. Regardless of whether you think its a political "stunt" (the only word, it seems, some people know), action is action.

Or, I could write about the fallout from Board of Elections' decision to not appeal the recent Comp Lite ruling.

There's also this interesting column by Dan Rodricks in the Sun that, among other things, calls for allowing some of Baltimore's poorest residents the opportunity to have opportunities by moving out of broken city neighborhoods and into strong suburban ones. This, he claims, pave the way for a massive, city-wide redevelopment that could supply a range of much needed affordable housing.

Or, I could tie all these stories into something more.

But I won't. Instead, I want to write about chestnut trees.

The Maryland chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation and the Columbia Association worked together Monday to pollinate a large American chestnut tree on Harper's Farm Road.

"It's a very big, old American chestnut," said Essie Burnworth, president of the Maryland chapter and secretary of the national organization. "It has blight, but it's still blooming and able to bear nuts."

The tree stands in a wooded area, Burnworth said, but Larry and Gwen Peters, former Columbia residents and longtime members of the foundation, noticed a few branches in bloom and notified Gary Carver, chairman of the chapter's American chestnut locator committee. The blooming branches hang over Harper's Farm Road, where they have access to sun, Burnworth said.

A portion of the road was blocked off June 14, and a lift, provided by the Columbia Association, was used to get to 163 of the tree's flowers. The flowers were bagged to prevent natural pollination from other chestnuts.

On Monday, pollen from blight-resistant trees at the foundation's Meadowview Research Farm in Virginia was brushed on the flowers. The bags were replaced and will remain on the flowers until the nuts are harvested in the fall.

The tree is intended to serve as a mother tree in the foundation's effort to restore American chestnuts, which were decimated by a fungus imported on Asian chestnut trees in the late 1800s, Burnworth said.

This is great! Does anyone know exactly where this tree is? I'd love to go see it.

I can still remember years ago my father first telling me about American chestnuts and the sense of loss I felt even though I'd never seen one. The story was prompted by a chestnut leaf he still keeps in an old guide book for Shenandoah National Park, where baby chestnuts grow for a few years before succumbing to the blight. I have since made special trips to the park to get a few leaves myself.

I can't say exactly why the story of the American chestnuts resonates so much with me. Perhaps because it demonstrates how delicate life is, even for thing, like chestnuts, that seem so strong and permanent. It's also a good allegory for the law of unintended consequences. Or maybe it's just nostalgia for a time I've never known.

Or maybe it's a bit of them all.

Whatever the case, the story of the chestnut changed me, helping push me towards two degrees in environmental sciences/policy. Although it's sad to think about the loss of all these great trees and the sisyphusian struggle of those that remain, stories like the one above give me hope for the chestnuts and for us.

But enough with the sentimentality. I've got driving to do, some mountains to see and a zip line to ride.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Bad picture of our plane to montana via salt lake.