Thursday, August 31, 2006

It's the schools, stupid...

Although Fort Meade is in Anne Arundel County, the impact of thousands of additional personnel will most assuredly be felt on the other (better) side of the tracks here in Howard County. No matter how much we control development or pull up the welcome mats for new residents, many of the 5,300 military jobs plus however many private jobs follow in their wake will be held by people who want to live in our county much more than in neighboring counties.


With nearly 4,100 Defense Information Systems Agency jobs set to move to Fort Meade by 2010, there was no shortage of people asking Kent Menser, the head of Howard County's BRAC task force, questions as he worked at a local fair booth in northern Virginia this summer.

Many of the employees slated to relocate now live in the Fairfax County school district, one of the most recognized districts in the country. Four Fairfax public high schools were listed in Newsweek's May issue of the Top 100.

So when DISA employees heard Howard County students averaged one point higher than Fairfax students on the SATs, many parents' interest were piqued, Menser said.

“…the schools in the county will be a magnet for folks," [Superintendent Sydney] Cousin said.
This is not wishful thinking on the part of some pro-development lackey. This is reality, and it’s the price we pay for being damn near the best in almost every quality of life index, survey or ranking out there (except, of course, for commute time).

The question is: How do we maintain our, for lack of a better word, greatness in the face of pressures and circumstances we cannot control? I refuse to believe that we can simply preserve what we have while the world around us changes. We cannot ignore or hope our way out of BRAC.

Thankfully, however, a committee is studying our predicament. And at least one member’s saying things that are sure to meet resistance.
The influx of service members and military civilians and their families have school officials attempting to project how many students will move into the county and when those moves will take place, despite limited information.

"Right now we don't have enough information to answer those questions," said Sydney Cousin, superintendent of Howard County public schools and a member of the Howard County BRAC Task Force, in an interview after the meeting.

Cousin said he expects the county will likely be forced to revise its general plan, a Department of Planning and Zoning document that is updated about once a decade and is considered the guiding document for Howard County's growth.
Changing the General Plan, huh? Although I’m not sure where I stand on that, the fact that our growth-guiding document was drafted before circumstances changed significantly certainly presents a valid argument for amending it.

Of course, it’s still early in the BRAC process and in the task force’s existence. Many details are still unknown and likely will be until the moving vans arrive. The best we can do know is act on what we know and adapt as the situation warrants.

In a move that should put a smile on even the most hardened cynic’s face, Menser, a retired Army Colonel, is looking for a few good men and women.
"There are a lot of bright people in Howard County. I want to put that intellect to work," Menser told an audience of about 25 people who attended last week's meeting.

He urged people with special expertise to volunteer for one of the task force's committees that work on areas from transportation to grant writing.
The next meeting of the task force will be Wednesday, September 6 at 3:30 pm (again with the freaking daytime meetings) at the county building in Gateway. If you’re interested in serving on a committee, the county lists this phone number for Menser: 410-313-3410.

Patuxent endorsements...

Patuxent Publishing released endorsements for primary races today. I can’t say if the list is surprising or not, but here are a few of the company’s more noteworthy choices:

House of Delegates District 13
(vote for three)
Democrats: Shane Pendergrass, Neil Quinter, Frank Turner
Quinter exacts some revenge for being left off the hat. But how much of an impact does this endorsement have in a race that’s comprised of pretty well-known folks, aside from Nina Basu, who probably deserves to be more well-known (oh, right, only when it’s her turn)? Also, Guzzone's got way more money than everyone else, and as David Keelan says: "Don't county him out."
County Council District 4
Democrat: Mary Kay Sigaty
I’m not sure if this is her first endorsement, but Sigaty’s generally been passed over by the traditional Democratic endorsees (unions, environmentalists, etc.). Rather than adding clarity, this endorsement confuses things. Will regular voters focus more on the paper’s endorsements or will they align themselves with an interest group of their choice? Or, will they actually learn about candidates and make their own decisions? What about you? Do you have a trusted source for candidate information?

On to some Republican races:
County Council District 5
Republican: Greg Fox
Whoa! The Davids (one and two) are happy. Or, wait, does an endorsement from the liberal media count against you as a Republican? My head hurts.
House of Delegates District 9A
(vote for two)
Republicans: Gail Bates, Warren Miller
And the incumbents take it! This one is actually a little confusing, considering that I think Patuxent generally takes a “slow-growth” stance on things and a story from today included these ideas on growth from the three candidates gunning for 9A:
To ensure that the west does not become overdeveloped, Covolesky would oppose efforts to increase housing density in the district or to extend public water and sewer service west of Route 32, she said.

Miller said he would advocate Howard's use of transferable credits that allow developers to buy land in the western county but develop the housing units that would normally be built on the parcel in areas of the county that already are more fully developed.

Bates said she is developing a bill that would allow farmers who put their land into the state's farmland preservation program 25 years ago to sell parts of their property to developers as the parcels come up for review.

Allowing the farmers to sell portions of their property would ensure that farmers have enough income to keep farming the majority of their land, she said.
Although in terms of pleasing farmers (potential voters) Bates’ suggestion is surely the best, it’s really the worst for Howard County, especially the parts of Howard County that don’t like more growth. What do we have left if we open preserved farmland to more development? Can’t we find ways (more ag preservation money, transferable development rights) that supply farmers with the income needed to continue farming (and preserving) all of their land. If we head down the path of allowing a little bit of additional development here, and a little bit more there, eventually we’ll get to a point where we won’t be able to turn around.

Anyway, read the rest of the endorsements and let me know what you think. I’m also interested in hearing how much stock you put into what a newspaper tells you about who to vote for.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Downtown lowdown...

At Monday's candidate forum in Harper's Choice, the discussion predictably centered around development in Columbia's Town Center. For those of you playing at home, you can update your scorecards here.

For those of you more interested in a lengthier discussion of the issue, this article in the Sun is a much better place to go. In it, Douglas Godine, the General Growth executive overseeing Columbia operations, discusses his surprise that downtown remains relatively undeveloped and how GGP is affecting the process and the resultant master plan.

Like the politicians at the candidates forum, Godine is saying the right, if not novel, things: Town Center should be a great place to live, work and play; citizens must support the plan in order for it to succeed; GGP needs to build the trust of residents; the plan must be comprehensive; etc.

Beyond the platitudes, however, Godine reiterates a point he's made in the past, one that I've applauded him for.

By the public, Godine does not simply mean those people who attended last year's charrette on downtown or the members of the focus group. It is vital, he says, that the process involve younger people, whom he describes as the future of Columbia.

"How do you get to those people and understand what they want? How do you get them involved?" he asks. I don't know. I don't have the answer on how you get to that young group."

And here's what I said when he last mentioned this topic to a reporter:

Thus far, whether we care to admit it or not, the the voices of Howard County's tomorrow have been mostly silent in the discussions over Town Center. Although the initial process was open to all, something -- apathy, disengagement, ignorance, lack of time, different priorities -- kept the younger people away; meanwhile, the current process has made things worse, actively marginalizing citizens under 35 -- even those sitting right its nose -- because not enough of them showed up for the auditions.

Reading his quote today within the context of a story that is largely about getting the public to trust his company, a question popped in my head: Is he engaging in a little strategery to help his cause?

Assuming that young(er) people are, on average, more open to change and more likely to enjoy city life, is his courting of their support something he believes will lead to a denser, more urban Town Center? If the assumptions about the preference of young people hold, would greater participation from this demographic counter-balance the voices pushing for less-intensive development?

Growing up in Columbia, the oft-heard refrain was "there's nothing to do here." And, indeed, for those between the ages of 16 and Parenthood, it's largely true. Sure, there's the mall, some bars (a few of which even have live music) and Merriweather, but the range of activities hardly compares to what one finds in Baltimore or even Annapolis. If given the chance, tomorrow's Town Center could fill this void.

Whether Godine's courting the youth movement for honest or financial reasons is really just a tangential matter. What's most important is that we have a plan that includes input from all residents, even those whose voices have thus far been quiet.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

New world water...

One thing that I never really thought about until today is the fact that without water and sewer infrastructure in the rural west, it’s kind of hard to put out fires.

Rather than hooking up to the nearest hydrant – many of which in this county bear the surname of yours truly, something I think is worth noting – firefighters tap into whatever source of water they can find, often pools and ponds, or rely on tanker trucks to bring the water to them.

As you can imagine, this is not an ideal way to douse the flames. Indeed, in the last few years, a couple million dollar homes have suffered millions of dollars of damage because of fires, and while I don’t know any comparable statistics for the eastern part of the county, the situation seems worse out west.

Well, at least one western HoCo resident is not going to watch his dream (home) go up in smoke.

The 18,000-square-foot home has 32 fire detectors, wall-mounted fire hoses hooked into the plumbing, a phone in each of the 11 bedrooms, a circuit breaker box plus two flashlights on each of the four floors, 12 sets of emergency lights and a 100,000-watt, diesel-fueled generator.

And by December, owner Lee Hewitt Jr. is hoping to install the biggest piece of his home protection system: a 20,000-gallon underground water tank in front of his Cooksville mansion for use in the event of fire.

…"You assume the fire department's going to have enough water, but the big house burned down, and you learn," said Hewitt, who lives in his house with his wife and two young children.

It's a lesson familiar to longtime residents of rural areas - and, increasingly, their new neighbors who are moving to the edge of the suburbs where ready access to water is not a given.
His is not the first water tank in Howard County. The Glenwood Library and Senior Center also have tanks, while a nearby neighborhood installed a dry hydrant that connects to a local pond. But, given the cost, he probably won’t have many followers.
Because of discounts from contractors, Hewitt expects the tank to cost him between $10,000 and $12,000. But the market value, he says, is about $25,000 - $20,000 for the tank, $3,000 for excavation and installation, $1,000 to hook it to an above-ground hose and $1,000 for water to fill it.
It will be larger than the 5,000- to-6,000-gallon tanks that 18-wheeler trucks usually carry, and once it is installed about 100 feet in front of the house and 10 to 20 feet underground, the only thing visible in the Hewitt's front yard will be a dry hydrant - the non-pressurized spigot firefighters can use to draw water.

Generally, the cost of installing a tank for a home would be prohibitive.

"There is no way it is economically feasible," said Gene Gillispie, principal of A.L. Howes Agency, an insurance company based in Sykesville. "Do you know how big of a hole you need to have for that type of tank to be there? Then you have maintenance, and leaking issues. Good grief."
So, the current situation, with firefighters scrambling for water whenever they’re called into action, will likely continue. But should it?
"I haven't heard anything about restricting development because of water capacity or fires or the ability to put out fires in those areas," said Cindy Hamilton, chief of the planning department's Division of Land Development.
Should we be talking about this? By allowing this pattern of growth to continue, are we at least partially contributing to a public safety problem?

For me, it’s yet another reason to oppose development in the rural west or even beyond the water and sewer service area.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The results are in...

and Republicans seem to outweigh Democrats among the readers of this blog, which is actually a little surprising, I guess.

Here's the breakdown:

Votes Percent
Democrat 48 42%
Republican 57 50%
Independent 5 4%
Libertarian 2 2%
Green 1 1%
Other 2 2%

Look for me to start pandering more to my readers.

I'll post another poll soon, once I think of a topic. If you have a potential question in mind, pose away in the comments section. A note of caution, however: no straw polls.

Read the whole thing, please...

I know clicking the link rarely happens in the Blogdom, but I strongly urge everyone to stop reading this and start reading this, a great story from the Washington Post about the growing housing affordability problem. The short summary: As the problem has grown to include more than just "poor" people, politicians seem even less concerned about it.

Here's more in the form of a chat transcript with the author.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Harper's Choice Candidate Forum

Tomorrow's your (yet another) chance to watch politicians talk (and, if you're a lucky winner, listen to them dodge your question!).. This time, the candidates for County Executive and County Council District 4 will be duking it out at Kahler Hall in the Harper's Choice Village Center tomorrow night (Monday) at 7:30 pm.

Dueling in District 13

The Democratic primary for District 13 is probably one of the most intriguing races this year, with five worthy candidates vying for three spots. Larry Carson has a good story about it today in The Sun, focusing on the battle within the battle -- that is, the one over yard signs.

When three-term Del. Frank S. Turner knocked on their door, retirees Irene and Jim MacDonald agreed to put a Guzzone-Pendergrass-Turner campaign sign on the lawn of their 33-year home in Columbia. They did the same thing when Del. Neil F. Quinter showed up with his sign.

The MacDonalds, who live on the high-traffic corner of Tamar Drive and Old Montgomery Road, are one of a handful of families with lawn signs advertising four candidates for the three available Democratic nominations to the Maryland House of Delegates from Howard County's District 13.

The popularity of the four elected officials is creating a problem for about 11,000 Democrats likely to vote in the Sept. 12 primary in the district, which covers the southeastern county, Fulton, east Columbia and parts of Elkridge. Nina Basu, 25, a self-described progressive, also is running.

...Quinter claimed that wherever his signs appear with those of other candidates, "I win the ties. If they have my sign up, that means they support me," speculating that people who put up the team signs might only support one or two of the three members.

Pendergrass disputed that assessment.

"As people begin to focus after Labor Day, I think people will understand and recognize the team," Pendergrass said. "People in this county care and pay attention."

Guzzone said a few yard signs won't make much difference.
Which is probably right. Signs, after all, are not votes.

Although I haven't decided whom I am voting for, making the decision is getting harder each time I read something about the "candidate for the future" Nina Basu.
"I am not interested in impressing Democratic politicians. The vast majority of people are not following their machinations," said Basu. "Voters want to talk about issues -- ideas."
Music to my ears.

She's in a similar situation as Melissa Ridgely Covolesky, a Republican challenging incumbents in District 9. Both are essentially being told, "it's not your turn," but as I said on Friday, this mindset bothers me.

It's not about who's best for the party, but who's best for residents of the district.

Priorities, priorities

Here's a great story about Town Center and balancing what we want with what General Growth wants out of our new and improved downtown.

"It's all about housing," says Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who is also a member of a focus group studying the future of downtown. "The other stuff they can do already."

To others, the principal question is not how much additional housing but what the community receives in return.

"I'm comfortable with greater density as long as the proper tradeoffs are made," says Alan Klein, principal of Klein Consulting, who has attended most of the focus group meetings even though he is not a member. "Things like the developer paying for more affordable housing opportunities. An agreement that the development would be to green building standards. And set-asides and resources - money and land - for cultural and other artistic purposes.
Although we may disagree on some of the details, Klein and I share the same perspective on this. The challenge is finding the right balance and properly prioritizing what we want and what we give, which is, as has been seen, an especially contentious and important exercise.
The plan for downtown is so sweeping that many people say its impact will be the most profound since the origins of Columbia more than four decades ago.

"The only question is: Are we going to be really good or excellent?" says Timothy J. Sosinski, another member of the focus group and a principal with ARIUM Inc., an architectural, engineering and planning firm. "If we can't do something spectacular, shame on us."
Sosinski believes the debate over density is missing the fundamental point, which, like Klein, he says is what the community receives in return.

He estimates that granting 5,000 housing units would produce a windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars for General Growth Properties, although the company scoffs at that.

The county, Sosinski says, should demand a "quid pro quo" for sanctioning such density. "We can say, 'You can have your [money] ... but we want you to give back half of that for the community good,'" he says. "They may just say, 'Fine.'"
I'm working on something I hope will provide a better illustration between all of these factors (profits, density, community amenities) but it's going to take more time than I have now.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Friday Round Up: Birthday Edition

No, not my birthday, and not my wife’s, either. We’ve both had too many to make a big deal out them. Who am I kidding? I still make a big deal out of my birthday. But this isn’t about me.

Instead, we today celebrate the birth of Mr. Finch, the perfect embodiment of the old cliché about dogs and men. While he’s not intensely loyal like a Lab or protective like a German Shepard, his intelligence, personality, sensitivity and wit (yes, wit) more than make up for his lack of subservience. Also, he’s freaking adorable.

As a baby:

And today, waiting for the blogging to end.

Although he strangely wanted one of these for his birthday, a new squeaky toy, a whole slice of cheese and a hiking/swimming trip tomorrow will have to suffice.

Anyway, enough about the Husky. Here’s a quick Round Up to keep you occupied until Sunday.

The action-packed primary battle for the Republican nominations in District 9 is profiled in this piece. For those who don’t know, there are two seats in this almost-guaranteed-Republican district and the current incumbents, Gail Bates and Warren Miller, are running as a slate and are being opposed by Melissa Ridgely Covolesky, a relative newcomer to the political scene.

The whole story is worth a read, but I want to highlight just one piece of it.

"I don't have anything personally against Melissa," [Senator Allan] Kittleman said. "She just came out of nowhere. In a Republican primary, people are going to want to see what you have done for the party and the community. She's a very nice person. She should have run for the central committee."

This mindset is, put simply, stupid. The idea that you need to pay your dues to a party before you can run for office is a horrible way of finding the best person for the job. The most loyal, perhaps, but is that what we really need? More politicians who are loyal to their party above all?

Needless to say, party loyalists agree with Kittleman.

For purely superficial reasons, I’d vote (if I could) for Covolesky. I mean, her birthday’s the day after mine, she has a Siberian Husky, and she likes chestnut trees, a trifecta!

The managed deer hunts taking place on public land in Howard County are expanding. Why?

The deer population at these parks has exceeded the ideal capacity of 15 deer per square mile, Norman said. In a survey of the land last winter, officials found an average of 75 deer per square mile.
Wowser, and you thought the county was crowded for people. Imagine being a deer.

It sounds like the first meeting of the BRAC task force was largely about the committee and the process. Which is good – I didn’t miss much.

I’m heartened to see in this article that the chair of the task force is emphasizing citizen involvement. I’m also a little surprised to read this:
Donna Thewes, a candidate for County Council seat in District 3 who attended the meeting, said the county should be aggressively courting businesses that may relocate to support Fort Meade.

“We are in a prime location,” she said. “The question really should be, what are we doing on the commercial end.”
Politicians and others seem to think that commercial developments are unmitigated goods: tax returns from them greatly outweigh tax expenditures. But this is a false supposition. Commercial and residential development cannot be separated. One without the other leads to all sorts of problems, just as too much overall development does, as well.

Moreover, many of the problems of growth in general – traffic, taxed infrastructure – are found regardless of whether you’re building homes or offices. To see a politician at this time ostensibly supporting more aggressive growth is, well, a little jarring.

That’s all for now!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

About that poll...

The poll at right will be closing on Sunday. So get your votes in now.

Interestingly, my plea for more Democrats seems to have backfired, as the gap between them and Republicans has only widened. Which raises the question: what do Republicans get out of a blog written a tree-hugging, granola-eating, peace-loving, tax-and-spend liberal? If the answer is something along the lines of "to see what the opposition is saying," then why read Republican-written blogs?

Most of the blogs and opinion pieces I read are by conservatives; I tend to learn more from them than I do from liberal writers, and on top of that, I don't really understand the impulse to seek continued affirmation of one's beliefs, which seems to be the case in much of the blogosphere.

Living large...

Even though I support the idea of this project, I’m not sure how well it will work in practice.

On a quiet, tree-lined street in the village of Oakland Mills sits a three-bedroom house, with 1 1/2 baths, a two-story living room with fireplace and a recently remodeled kitchen. The house is within walking distance of Stevens Forest Elementary School. At $339,000, it is advertised as the ideal starter home in Columbia.

The Oakland Mills Community Association and the Howard County Housing Commission bought the house in May for $287,000 and added $20,000 in renovations. The goal, however, is not to turn a quick $32,000 profit, much of which would be eaten by fees and closing costs. The stakes are much higher -- the house is part of a wager, by Oakland Mills, on the future of one of Columbia's oldest neighborhoods.

The renovation is part of Oakland Mills' multi-year revitalization effort, designed to spark interest in the 30-year-old Columbia neighborhood.

"Old does not mean bad -- old means opportunity," said Bill McCormack, chair of the Oakland Mills Housing Committee. "You can take a house and make it look new for an affordable price."
Is it really affordable? I suppose it is to some – namely, those earning more than median income, a group that I would guess has a near-saturated homeownership rate as it is.

Although it isn’t too far out of reach for them, a families making median income or less (roughly mid-80s) probably wouldn’t be able to afford this house unless they have enough cash just sitting around for a big down payment, which is pretty unlikely if they’re first time buyers -- the target group.

Not surprisingly, given the price, interest in the house hasn’t been high.
Whether buyers can be persuaded is unclear. Michelle Lewis, who works at the Elkridge office of Fairfax Realty and is the agent for the house, says buyer traffic has been slow and many people are turned off by a house with fewer than two full baths.

"Everyone complains Howard County is expensive, but a lot of first-time buyers get approved for a small mortgage and say, 'We want at minimum three bedrooms, two full baths and a garage,' " Lewis said.
This regrettable sentiment speaks to the fact that we, as a nation, are probably over-housed at this point. Over the last 50 years, as average family size has dwindled, the average size of our houses has grown considerably – from less than 1,000 square feet in 1950 to over 2,000 square feet today. While this change was driven in larger part by consumer preferences and our preponderance of “stuff” (computers, big TVs, ginormous Pottery Barn couches), zoning regulations mandating growing minimum square footage are also to blame. And, of course, there’s the fact that mortgages up to $1.1 million are tax deductible.

How much space do we really need to be comfortable? I know in America it is taboo talk about cutting back on consumption, but it might not be a bad idea to consider going smaller. After all, less space has its benefits: less to clean!

By the way, here’s a link to the listing of the house in Oakland Mills.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

No BRAC meeting for me...

As you can see by the time stamps on the posts below, I didn't make it to the BRAC meeting tonight. But if you did, I'd love to hear about it in comments.

I'll spare you tales of moutain biking, which are even less interesting than fishing stories (uh, I really shredded that trail, man...).

Merriweather update...

Whenever someone asks me if Merriweather is “saved,” my tepid response is usually “for now.” Despite claims from the pavilion’s owners that it will stay open, no permanent protections are in place and IMP Productions still does not have its sought-after long-term operating contract.

The last official action on its future happened way back in March of 2005, when the county-appointed commission studying whether to purchase the pavilion released its official report. Shortly after that, General Growth announced that it wouldn’t sell Merriweather and that it wouldn’t close or enclose it either.

Thankfully, those interested in the MPP’s future can attend (but not ask questions) a status report meeting hosted by the Merriweather Post Pavilion Advisory Panel on September 25. From the press release:

“Seventeen months have passed since the panel released its final report and findings on the Pavilion,” said County Executive Robey. “We’ve always believed that Merriweather plays an important role in our community as a venue for the arts and a place for people to gather and enjoy live performances. It’s time for a status report on the progress that is being made as we move forward to make Merriweather an even greater regional attraction.”

Doug Godine of General Growth Properties and Seth Hurwitz from IMP Productions will make presentations to the panel members. Although the meeting will be open to the public, only panel members will be allowed to ask questions of the speakers.

This will be the first meeting of the panel since it delivered its final report and recommendations regarding the future of Merriweather to County Executive Robey on March 18, 2005. Panel recommendations included keeping the facility as an outdoor concert venue, signing a long-term contract with an operator to provide operational, financial and management stability and making substantial renovations to the facility that could be constructed in phases over a five-year period.
I’m glad to see the panel reconvening for an update; I was always impressed with the professionalism and attention to detail of its members. My hope is that this meeting results in some new information about the future prospects of MPP, helping me answer the above-posed question with a little more certainty.

A giant loss?

The Giant in Wilde Lake Village Center is closing this fall, a year before its lease is to expire. This is not a surprise. At 17,000 square feet, the store, built in the late 1960s, is far too small to accommodate the needs of today’s shoppers, who usually take their diverse grocery lists to stores that are three or four times larger.

More generally, Giant has bigger problems. It and other grocers like it are being squeezed by low cost stores like Wal-Mart and the more upscale brands like Harris Teeter, Wegmans and Whole Foods.

So, what to do with the space? The story provides no details, but there are two options that I would support. The first is getting David’s Natural Food Market and Produce Galore to join forces and give Columbia it’s first (nearly) full-sized natural food store. The second, which is bound to happen eventually anyway, is to redevelop the entire village center, something we may want to hold off on, however, until the whole charrette thing is done.

More on the Savage MARC station development

As I said yesterday, I think the type of development being proposed is generally good: it makes use of an already developed site, it is integrated with transit, it has a viable mix of uses, it will have a non-negligible amount of affordable housing, it is land efficient, and it’s in an area already well-served by public infrastructure.

But what about this?

The plan calls for two high-rise residential towers containing a combined 260 apartments, 53,000 square feet of mostly retail stores, two restaurants, 145,000 square feet of office space in two six-story buildings, a nine-story, 200-room hotel and five parking garages for 2,000 vehicles spread throughout the site.

It is a preliminary, conceptual plan that, for example, shows two 13-story residential towers, even though county height regulations limit buildings to 100 feet or about nine stories, according to Marsha McLaughlin, the county planning director, who also attended the event.

Hmm. The proposal, although preliminary, calls for buildings that are taller than what is currently allowed by county regulations. It will be interesting to see what happens with that, no?

For me, the height issue isn’t really a big deal, especially at this site and when compared to all the other facets involved in development. Height actually seems like a rather trivial and mostly aesthetic thing.

That said, context matters. Buildings that are too tall can disrupt the character of a neighborhood, but probably not as much as an overall bad development project, which this isn’t (and in this case, the existing character of the neighborhood is, well, not one where a tall building is going to be a downgrade).

Speaking of context, I absolutely hate development like we’re seeing on the Eastern Shore. Today’s dispatch from the other side of the Bay is ostensibly about an office park, but it's also more than that: development on greenfields and another verse from the popular hit “The Exurbanite’s Lament.”
Many of the new arrivals who have snapped up about half of the 67 homes at The Preserve at Wye Mills, houses priced at $500,000 or more, say that commuting across the bay is the price they pay for getting more house for their money in a tranquil setting surrounded by farm fields. Not surprisingly, they are wary of more development.

"Our community is only 60-some homes, so I don't see we're making that much impact," says Matthew Watson, 26, who drives about an hour each way to the marine service company he owns in southern Anne Arundel County. "I would not want to see any businesses that would draw more traffic."
To be sure, the impact of one additional person isn't that great. But to think that this development isn't part of and contributing to the bigger problem of sprawl on the Eastern Shore is willful ignorance. Field by field, new residents are destroying much of what brought them there.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Tuesday Round Up: Choose my adventure...

I had hoped to write more today, but the best laid plans and all that. Instead, here's another lame Round Up.

Bobby Guv was in town today to announce plans for a major new development on the parking lots of the Savage MARC station. Details, from The Sun:

The project would put pedestrian-friendly, urban-style communities on the 15-acre parking lot and encourage train use in a corner of Howard County that has long been targeted for upscale redevelopment.

...If the Savage Towne Centre concept is accepted by state and county governments, the state-owned station parking lot would be the site of 260 apartments in two high-rise buildings, a hotel, two restaurants, 53,000 square feet of retail space, a 145,000-square-foot office building and a five-story parking garage for 1,000 vehicles, according to a state fact sheet.
Leaving aside the horrible name with its pretentious spelling and poor grasp of geography (the site is nowhere near the "centre" of Savage) the plan sounds interesting, if possibly overly ambitious. Although it is near Fort Meade, a highway and transit (good things), the site is currently surrounded by lots and lots of industrial buildings and the county wastewater treatment plan, making me question how appealing it will be to buyers.

Then again, with a development like this sprouting up, can we really expect the industrial character of the area to persist forever?

More info and maps here.

I don't want to pile on, but reading this story from yesterday's Sun made me realize (again) how silly the whole Lake Elkhorn tot lot fence process has been. For instance:
Almost immediately, parents called for a review of safety measures at the playground, and the CA board responded, allocating up to $20,000 for a study and $30,000 for a fence, if needed.

But the study - a six-page report from the National Program for Playground Safety - found "no compelling need to place a fence" around the playground at Lake Elkhorn.

Angry parents denounced that finding, and the CA board, convinced that some barrier was needed, agreed to build a fence or landscape buffer. As recently as March, CA officials were predicting that construction would be completed in time for summer.

In the intervening months, however, the board has:

  • Reviewed seven design options, ranging from leaving the playground as it is to putting a fence around the entire perimeter.
  • Made a motion to approve the perimeter fencing plan after two board meetings of discussion.
  • Scrapped the fence plan entirely and voted unanimously to close the Lake Elkhorn tot lot and remove the play equipment.
  • Reversed itself once again and agreed to leave the lot open - and unfenced - after a meeting at which members were berated by a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 angry parents and concerned residents.
Got that?

Have you noticed the poll on the right? Republicans are far outnumbering Democrats. What, I get no love from my own party? Seriously. I'm feeling a little lonely. And what about the Libertarians? HoCo Exile, you out there?

Finally, choose my adventure. The way I see it, I have two options for tomorrow night and I'll let you decide what I do. The first is attending the first meeting of the BRAC task force at 7 pm in the county office building. The second is moutain biking.

Now, if I go to the meeting, I probably wouldn't write about it until Thursday or Friday. If I go mountain biking, I'll write about the BRAC meeting on Friday, assuming the Sun writes a story about it (I'm counting on you, Larry).

I think the meeting would be interesting, informative and worthwhile, but not as enjoyable as moutain biking, which I haven't done in a week (a week!). Since I'm bad at making decisions, I'll let you decide. If, however, there's an insufficient number of votes, I'll just do whatever feels right tomorrow evening (which, in case you didn't notice, is really just my ambiguous escape clause).

UPDATE: I was just reminded by a reader that our Gov also announced today that Route 108 will be dedicated to the late Senator James Clark, who passed away last Friday. He also formally announced the renaming of Route 175 to the Jim and Patty Rouse Parkway. I saw Patty today with a large street sign that had her name on it. So, I guess she was there for the press conference.

Monday, August 21, 2006

We are not alone...Part II

A new report by the Brookings Institution examines land use regulations around the country, classifying regimes employed by local government into one of four orders -- Traditional, Exclusion, Wild Wild Texas, and Reform -- with each order further broken down into several families.

Howard County falls into the "Containment Lite" family of the Reform order. Jurisdictions in the Reform order, Brookings says, "use tools beyond comprehensive plans, zoning, and subdivision regulation to manage and control land use." Among these additional tools are the use of containment (target locations for development, like Priority Funding Areas or urban growth boundaries), infrastructure regulation, impact fees and building permit caps.

From the study:

As suggested by the title, "Containment Lite" means a moderate level of containment among the Reform families...But it also involves a more modest commitment to other growth management tools and a more active growth control agenda...permissive high-density zoning is less common...
The nuanced difference between growth management and growth control, according to the study, is that management emphasizes infrastructure regulation (APFOs and such) while control makes use of permit caps.

Since metropolitan areas were studied as a whole, some of the differences between us and our neighbors are washed out of the analysis. Howard County, it should be noted, makes use of just about every tool mentioned. We have an APFO. We have permit caps. We have a (state mandated) Priority Funding Area. We have zoning. We have comprehensive plans. We have density limits. And we have impact fees.

And, still, we have problems.

Judging from the study's findings about the impact of land use regulations, however, that we have problems managing growth shouldn't come as a surprise.
[L]ocal regulations shape the built form and character of cities, towns, counties, and entire regions. Zoning, Comprehensive plans, infrastructure finance, urban containment, building moratoriums, and permit caps can foster low density development and metropolitan decentralization or promote a more compact development pattern. They can also directly affect the socioeconomic composition of the local populace by opening or closing doors for renters and low-income people. Together, local land use regulations and hosing programs can produce regional equity or inequity, safeguard or undermine environmental quality and public healthy, and create a more efficient or inefficient patter of public services.
In short, land use regulations can be good or bad. Or, as the study more succinctly says, "it depends."

We are not alone...

Bethesda seems to get some people around here riled up.

It's not really the town itself, but rather the the idea of it and the possibility that our Town Center would come to look like it. Sure, Bethesda's got traffic and tall buildings, the former almost no one likes and the latter is more debatable. But it's also a nice place to walk around and it has good (and plenty) restaurants.

Compared to other town centers in the Washington metro region, Bethesda's not all the bad. It certainly ranks above Tysons Corner, a suburban, parking lot oasis that, like Columbia's Town Center, is poised for some big changes. In advance of those changes, however, a debate, also like ours, is raging.

Is Fairfax County's hope of turning Tysons from a car-clogged, outsize office park into a vibrant, walkable downtown for Northern Virginia achievable?
While the idea of a subway extension to Columbia is discussed in future terms, in Tysons it's a looming reality. The concern there is not whether trains will run through town, but how.

The debate over whether to build a tunnel or an elevated track is partly tied to this vision and whether trying to achieve it is worth risking the extension of rail service to Washington Dulles International Airport.

The main argument for building the $4 billion rail line underground for its four-mile Tysons stretch is that it would enhance Fairfax's efforts to create a pedestrian-friendly downtown, similar to what Arlington has achieved along a Metro line in its Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Tunnel proponents say that this, combined with less disruption during construction, justifies the extra cost, which they estimate at $200 million, in addition to a year's delay.

...More broadly, the tunnel's critics express doubts that Tysons is capable of the metamorphosis Fairfax leaders seek. Skeptics say Tysons might be too far from the District and too well-established as a suburban commercial center to duplicate Arlington's success.

...There are reasons for skepticism. To become a true downtown, both supporters and detractors of a tunnel say, Tysons would need a grid of streets to replace the winding office park loops that congest traffic -- no easy task with two large malls, Tysons Corner Center and Tysons Galleria, sitting in the middle of the area and the Capital Beltway slicing across it. To be more urban, the area would need thousands more residents to support more after-hours activity (about 17,000 people live there, compared with about 100,000 who work there).

And it would need to become much more developed, particularly around the four proposed Metro stations, to put more destinations within walking distance of a larger population. With 17,000 acres, Tysons is as large as downtown Boston, but much of it is parking lots and swaths of scrub and trees.

Though the scale of Tysons is much larger than Town Center, many of the fundamental issues being debated -- namely, density and people/car movement -- are the same in both places. Interestingly, one of the critics of increased density in Tysons is a developer.
Among those doubtful of an urban transformation is John T. "Til" Hazel, the veteran developer and land-use lawyer credited with helping transform Tysons from a rural crossroads into one of the largest business districts in the country. Hazel said he favors a tunnel in principle but questions predictions of growth.

"What needs to be done is to have a serious review of the argument that you can densify Tysons because you have a train," he said. "I don't share this theory that Tysons is suddenly going to become a new Manhattan Island because you put rail on Route 7."

The article lacks specifics about how many more residential units would be part of the redevelopment, but it does say that the "county's plans call for allowing about 65 percent higher building density, mostly around stations, after the rail's arrival, but that would still leave Tysons less dense than much of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and far less dense than many downtown areas."

If I had to take a side after reading just this story, I would tend to agree with Hazel, but primarily because of Tysons' size.

At less than 600 acres, Columbia's downtown is compact and centered, with well-defined borders, and yet creating a comprehensive, realistic plan for its future development has proved more difficult than we originally thought. Once the plan is approved, however, managing growth will be pretty straightforward, if not entirely smooth (as is to be expected).

Meanwhile, Tysons is 17,000 acres -- larger than all of Columbia itself. To plan for comprehensive redevelopment on this scale is almost unimaginable, especially since you have to work with (or around) complex existing conditions and infrastructure and a plethora of buildings and landowners.

Also, this story illustrates how important it is to integrate future transit plans into Town Center now rather than trying to squeeze it in after more development has taken place.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Sunday Round Up...

I've already annoyed my wife and dog by spending much of my morning in front of this lifeless vacuum of a computer. It's probably best if I just plow through these stories as quickly as possible...

Grocery store elitists. Like the unnamed writer of this article, I used to be one. Then I started shopping at a Food Lion. I actually wrote a long, snarky post about this story but decided against posting it (it's just a grocery store, after all). Let's just say those of us in low-rent Oakland Mills like our low-rent Food Lion just fine, thank you very much.

More on those campaign finance reports, with a focus on Harry Dunbar and District 13. Talking about money never gets old.

Yay Bloggers!

To outsource or not to outsource?

That is the question facing the Columbia Association.

A Columbia Association committee is calling on the association's board of directors to turn down proposed restrictions on the outsourcing of work to foreign countries. A board member is pushing such restrictions as a way to support the local economy.

Meanwhile, the oversight committee will review the homeowner association's acquisition policy to see if any changes should be made in the association's policy on outsourcing.

"The real issue was ... that we need to address the process and the issue of acquisition," said Cynthia Coyle, acting chairwoman at Thursday's meeting. "We will review the acquisition policy and address any issues which may include some levels of discussion about outsourcing, but not to cancel outsourcing."

Phil Marcus, board member representing Kings Contrivance, presented the board with a motion last month that would require the board to have a majority vote on all outsourced overseas contracts of more than $25,000. His motion could come up for a vote as early as Thursday's board meeting.

Although I don't think outsourcing is itself bad, I'm generally in favor of using (quasi) public money to help strengthen our local economy. The more money that we circulate through the system -- as opposed to shipping it elsewhere, even if not to another country -- the better, as this money helps create and maintain jobs for our friends and neighbors. That said, sometimes it's just not feasible, economically or otherwise, to spend locally.

I would support a policy that allowed CA to spend a certain percentage above the lowest bid (say 5 percent) for contracts with companies that are locally-owned or primarily use local labor. The county already has something like this in place for spending on "green" products. Both policies recognize the hidden benefits of spending locally or green, benefits that may cost a little more up front but may pay off in the long run.

Although this policy wouldn't always result in the lowest prices for citizens, their money would go farther by staying close to home.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

"He was one of the last real gentlemen of Maryland politics. He was mild-mannered but firm, a person who stood for principle all his life."

Former state senator, farmer and Howard County icon James Clark Jr. died yesterday. If you don't know much about his life, this story is really worth a read.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Thursday Round Up...

On one hand, this post could be seen as entirely pointless. On the other, it's all about point(ing).

With only a small amount of time available for blogging this evening, I was inclined to not post anything. But the post-or-die mentality that infects all bloggers was too overwhelming. So, here is a list of HoCo-relevant stories worth reading, as if you, a reader of this semi-obscure website, couldn't find them on your own.

WaPo looks at voter registration and finds many Howard Countians are eschewing parties in favor of the Big-I. What does it mean for this election? Considering Ehrlich carried the county in 2002 and Kerry did the same in 2004, who knows? More background here. Also, let me know what your voter registration card says in the sidebar poll.

Plan for energy co-op OK'd by Public Service Commission.

The Flier/Times profiles the primary races for the District 2 council seat. Democrats. Republicans.

Howard County's sheriff deputies endorse their boss's challenger. I wonder if things are a little uncomfortable at the office now.

At a glance: Wallis is on the ballot, BRAC committee to hold its first meeting next week, African American Coalition endorses candidates in primaries, HoCo's Madame to sit before a jury, and some other stuff.

David Wissing breaks down candidates' war chests. Governor. General Assembly. Comptroller. Attorney General. He promises county executive and council races soon. Let's hold him to it!

More substance and style tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Money, lots of it, is flowing into the campaign accounts of our party-affiliated, non-single-issue candidates for county executive.

Democrat Ken Ulman raised nearly double the campaign cash collected by Republican Christopher J. Merdon this year, as both battle to become Howard County's next executive.

In campaign finance reports prepared for filing yesterday, both County Council members reported totals that far exceeded what was raised by outgoing County Executive James N. Robey in his last two campaigns. Ulman already has accumulated more money than Robey spent in both of those efforts combined.

Ulman reported raising $364,427 to Merdon's $186,181 from Jan. 13 through Aug. 8. That gives Ulman a total of $575,000 raised so far, compared with Merdon's $449,445. Ulman also had $413,495 in cash on hand, compared with Merdon's $304,402 - a 25 percent advantage.

So, already over one-meeellion dollars has been raised for this race, and we've still got a few months to go. Of course, the next logical question after "How Much?" is "From Whom?".

Most of the money came to both candidates from big contributors, including developers, lawyers and business owners, the reports show, with 96 contributions of $1,000 or more for Merdon, and 143 in that category for Ulman. Ulman also raised significant amounts from people outside Howard County, including $500 from singer Sheryl Crow, who knows Doug Ulman, the candidate's brother, through his work with the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

I'm sure someone's going to pour over the donor lists and tell us in whose pockets our candidates reside, but I don't think we'll learn anything of value from that exercise. The fact is both candidates have a ton of money that came from all sorts of places, many of which are related to development in this county. Trying to keep score on this is like trying to count fleas on a dog.

The bigger issue, I think, is how much money will actually affect the election. Here's what the paid commentariat has to say:

Although Howard is a small county in which candidates typically spend money mainly on mailings and signs, University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor Donald F. Norris said money can make a difference in a tight race.

"I would imagine that if you ask the average Howard resident to name the five County Councilmen, they couldn't do it," he said, something money can help remedy.

Herbert S. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College, said money spent for offices and staff pay doesn't help as much as direct advertising.

"There are three important things - voter contact, voter contact and voter contact," Smith said.

Money can also mean support, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

"Most people who contribute to campaigns are investors. ... Investors choose [candidates] not just because they like them, but because they think they're going to win," he said.
So, some, not much, or a proxy for the outcome. Take your pick.

Although I try, I can't seem to work myself up too much about money in elections. Maybe I'm too jaded, but it seems that all the money in the world won't turn a bad candidate into a winner. Sure, some people are going to vote based on who looked best on TV, but on the whole I think most voters are smart enough to find some other reason to justify their vote than snazzy commercials (and for some, the amount of money raised by certain candidates is a reason to vote against them). Also, with both candidates raising and spending roughly the same amount of cash, the net result is probably a wash.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Tax cuts for some, miniature American flags for others…

Several low income households stand to benefit from a targeted tax break

Some of Howard County's oldest homeowners could see the metropolitan area's most generous property tax cut - a reduction of 25 percent for those 70 or older with incomes of under $75,000 a year - if a proposal by two County Council members proves as irresistible this election year as they predict.

The bill, allowed under legislation unanimously approved by the General Assembly this year, goes farther than measures enacted this spring by Baltimore and Carroll counties, which slightly expanded credits offered under the state's homeowner's tax credit program for low-income families.

If approved by the five-member Howard County Council, the proposal unveiled yesterday would freeze the lowered property tax bills for older homeowners until the home is sold.
So, as property assessments have risen dramatically over the last few years, senior homeowners on fixed incomes have had trouble keeping up with their increasing tax bills. And since they don’t have children in the school system – our county’s largest financial obligation – mitigating incentives to move through a tax break helps slow the growth of our student population. That, and is it really fair to ask people on fixed incomes to subsidize the education of other people’s children?

On the whole, it seems like a good idea. The county’s current “circuit breaker” tax deferral program for low-income seniors places a lien on the property, which many people likely want to avoid, and it requires repayment of the deferred taxes when the property is sold, meaning families may lose a home that’s been passed down for generations. When this measure passed last year, however, actual tax breaks, rather than defferals, for seniors were not legal under state law.

My only real concern, which is in reality a much broader concern about taxes in general, is our penchant for carving up the tax code for certain groups. To be sure, the power of the tax code and the benefit of tax breaks can be used for good, but eventually we’ll cross a point where the whole thing is too complicated, too fragmented. We lose a bit of fairness with every each additional targeted tax break.

But what about the timing of this proposal? After all, Democrats on the council have taken a lot of heat -- particularly from Councilman and bill sponsor Charlie Feaga -- for having the nerve to do their jobs during an election year. Yet, here they (mostly) resist the urge to follow suit and instead express support for this Republican-led proposal.
"I think it's ironic that every piece of legislation we've introduced this year Feaga has called a political stunt; however, I don't care where or when a concept comes from. If it helps people and it's affordable, I'll support it," said Democrat Guy Guzzone.

Ulman said that "it sounds interesting. Clearly, I believe we ought to be helping seniors on a fixed income when we can."
I’m glad to see the Democrats supporting this; but, how could they not, especially if it's price tag -- $2 million -- is reasonable?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Lemme ask you this...

So, I've had several conversations last week with several different people about the upcoming elections and the state of local politics in general. So, what?

I know, it's rather unsurprising that someone who spends so much time writing about local politics would actually talk it about it, as well.

But, really, I don't like talking about politics. I actually actively try to avoid political discussions altogether, and something I've said many times on this blog is that we would probably be better off in local elections if they were entirely non-partisan.

Anyway, back to these unusual conversations. The gist of each was that the tone of this election season is especially harsh. Divisiveness is to be expected, my companions have said, but this year it has soared to new heights.

Now, I'd be lying if I said I didn't agree with most of those I've talked to, but, then, just a low level of rigid partisanship rankles me, even if I occasionally fall into its inviting trap.

Since I followed the 2002 election as a casual observer -- local blogs didn't exist back then, the dark ages -- I really have no apt comparison to use when judging the polarization of this election. The only other election in which I've been intimately involved turned ugly after the polls closed, in large part because of a mistake I made as a cub reporter. But that's a whole other story.

With respect to blogs, we've provided a forum for opinions that may not have been heard in elections past, meaning that the vitriol may have been there, albeit muted.

So, shifting the conversation to the virtual world, what do you think? Is this election season particurlarly hostile? If so, does partisanship help anyone? Hurt anyone? Is it a sign of things to come, or just a small bump in an otherwise smooth road?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sunday Round Up...

And an abbreviated one at that.

While the dewpoint plummeted and the temperatures hovered around 80, I spent yesterday inside, working. And not because I wanted to.

So rather than waste another near-perfect day, I'm using this brief amount of time to basically point out some articles that you probably already read.

Oh, well: The Columbia Association decided against donating money to a new arts center at Howard Community College. It's my opinion that CA -- which is more than just a sports and fitness organization -- should devote a little more of its resources to funding cultural amenities. All but one of CA's board members disagrees with me.

The District 2 council race: Democrats debate zoning, Republicans split on whether to be kinder, gentler or, um, not.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

We don't need no stinking facts...

Or maybe we do.

In the only televised forum for Howard County executive candidates prior to next month's primary election, Kenneth Ulman said he wanted to continue the quality of life that recently earned Columbia and Ellicott City national recognition, while opponent Harry Dunbar focused on slowing growth in the county.

...During the forum, Dunbar characterized Ulman, who sits on the County Council, as a candidate who puts the interests of developers first.

He said that Ulman met "in a back room" with the builders of a controversial 22-story condominium project in downtown Columbia to "seal the deal" on the project's construction.

After the Aug. 8 forum, in an interview, Dunbar said that he had no firsthand knowledge of the back-room meeting he said Ulman attended but that Del. Elizabeth Bobo was quoted in the Columbia Flier as saying that such a meeting had occurred.

Also following the forum, Ulman, who represents west Columbia, denied that any such meeting occurred and called Dunbar's accusation "patently false."

A check of the Flier's stories produced no references to Bobo saying that Ulman had met privately with the builders of the high-rise. Bobo, a Democrat from west Columbia, has been critical of the high-rise project, The Plaza Residences, which is under construction.

In February, she filed a complaint with the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board alleging that the Howard County Planning Board, which approved construction of the Plaza, regularly holds meetings in a separate room with petitioners and developers prior to public meetings and keeps no minutes of those meetings.

The compliance board ruled that the Planning Board had violated open meetings laws by keeping no minutes of a meeting that preceded a public hearing on the high-rise.

Ulman does not serve on the Planning Board.

Bobo could not be reached for comment. However, Ann Goldscher, a Bobo aide, said she spoke with Bobo about Dunbar's allegation and that Bobo said she had never accused Ulman of meeting privately with the Plaza's developers.
Isn't it amazing what you can find if you spend a little time looking?

Flier reporter Nate Sandstrom has earned my respect for actually reporting the facts, rather than just repeating dubious claims verbatim. More like this, please.

I built this garden for us...

Of all the cities to inspire use as we think about the future of Columbia's downtown, who would point to Chicago as an example to follow?

Skeptics snickered 17 years ago when Mayor Richard M. Daley added flowers and trees to the city's honey-do list. They scoffed at the apparent folly of beautifying a sprawling, gritty urban landscape, figuring Daley for a modern-day Potemkin.

A few tulips, they figured, would be the end of it.

But the city-kid mayor raised on the rough-and-tumble South Side stuck with it. The greening project grew strong roots, giving Chicago a reputation as one of the nation's most committed environmental cities of any size. The company it keeps is not Newark and Detroit, but Portland and Seattle.

...Since Daley began investing tax dollars in greening the city, Chicago has planted as many as 400,000 trees, according to city spokesmen. It employs more arborists than any city in the country. There are 2.5 million square feet of green roofs completed or under construction, boosted by expedited permitting and density bonuses for developers who embrace the concept.

The ground in downtown Columbia today is mostly a asphalt drainage system meant to channel rainwater as quickly as possible into the lake and nearby Little Patuxent river. Rather than overwhelm the surrounding ecosystem, redevelopment, if done right, can actually help stem the ongoing degredation. I am heartened to hear that the Downtown Focus Group is pushing for a broader discussion of green building. If only this effort could be expanded to include all county development.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

You're only a day away...

Since this was mentioned in the Business Monthly recently, I think it's now fit for publication here, a news outlet with a considerably smaller -- but more dedicated, I hope -- base of readers.
I'm writing now from a meeting at the EnviroCenter, a very green building in Jessup, where a bunch of us have gotten together to discuss sustainability and how we can bring it to Howard County. Sponsoring tonight's chat is a group/growing coalition I've been working with for several months, Howard County Tomorrow.

Although we're probably not quite ready for prime time, a foundation of guiding principles and policies is available on the website, including this mission statement: "The mission of Howard County Tomorrow is to engage our citizens and stakeholders in the work of building an ecologically restorative, socially just, and reliably prosperous Sustainable Community in Howard County and the Baltimore Washington Region that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Also on the website is an extensive, interactive and in progress Plan for a Sustainable Community. I know several tree huggers like me read this blog, and I'd be interested to hear their takes -- and those of non-tree huggers -- on this still-developing framework, which covers far more than just the environment -- for instance, equity, transporation, arts, affordable housing and historic preservation.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Just some housekeeping stuff to get through today...

In case you haven't heard, the Gang of Four (Local Bloggers) will be sponsoring an on-line candidate forum for most local elections beginning in October. More details here.

As for live, in-person forums, mentioned below is tonight's League of Women Voters forum at the county office building in Ellicott City. Although I had considered attending, I need to make up for mountain biking time lost because of yesterday's storms. A healthy mind needs a healthy body, or something like that. I set the TiVo set to record the forum, however, and I'll probably have some comments on it later tonight or tomorrow. If you do attend, feel free to use this post as an open thread to share your thoughts.

Speaking of spending time outside...

While walking the mutt this morning, I encountered an interesting critter on the trail. Luckily, I had my camera with me and zoomed in to capture this shot:

Sorry about the blurriness. This photo was taken from about 70 yards away.

At first I wasn't sure what it was, but now it seems pretty clear that it's a fox. What confused me initially was the length of his coat, which is far shorter than any other fox I've ever seen. Is this just what they look like in the summer, or is there some other explanation for why it almost looks like he's been shaved? He also appears to be pretty big, though it's hard to tell from this photo.

Missing intrigue...

I'm a little upset that the Democrats are lacking a primary battle as bitter as that being waged by the Republicans (and turncoats) in District 5. Both of my Republican blogging peers feel very strongly about this race, with one urging party-mates to "stay on message" with a bulleted list of Wayne Livesay's Greatest Hits.

While the Democratic primary in District 4 is going to be close and hotly contested, it lacks the intrigue and visible acrimony of the fight in western HoCo. And if we let the Republicans beat us in in-fighting during the primaries, we've already lost.

And with that, I call on Joshua Feldmark, Mary Kay Sigaty and darkhorse UNcommon to turn tonight's forum into an all-out, steel cage death match.

Or at least they could start by spewing more invective. Extra points for working in a reference to Bentsen's "Jack Kennedy" quote ("I know Ken Ulman. Ken Ulman is a friend of mine. (Opposing Candidate), you're no Ken Ulman.") or even some random, poorly-placed reference to the sexual orientation of a family member.

UPDATE: I think we all hope our local campaigns don't come to this (I highly recommend watching the accompanying video).

Monday, August 07, 2006

Programming notice...

The League of Woman Voters will host a candidates forum tomorrow (Tuesday, Aug. 8) at 7 pm in Tyson Room of the George Howard Building. Only county executive and council candidates involved in primaries will be featured. For those of you who enjoy your county government at a comfortable distance, the forum will be televised on Gtv (Comcast channel 70, currently unavailable for any early adopters of Verizon FiOS TV).

Round Up: Oakland Mills Edition...

A bevy of news stories recently chronicled the redevelopment situation in Oakland Mills, home of the sweetest Coke in Columbia and the county’s Best Blogger Named after a Fictional Character. Ah, it is truly magical here on the east side.

Anyway, the trajectory of Oakland Mills – specifically its village center – isn’t really news. After the anchor grocery store left in the late 1990s, the center’s decline, which was already underway, accelerated. Other, smaller stores closed and the gas station disappeared, leaving a vacant slab of asphalt in its place. Then, the center was redesigned, losing practically all of its character while gaining (for a time) only temporary tenants. The symbolic low point was probably when the Columbia institution the Last Chance Saloon lived up to its name.

More recently, however, things have been looking up. The community is reenergized, in part thanks to the work of current councilman Calvin Ball, who worked for a year as the Oakland Mills Community Organizer. The village center has a stable anchor tenant, the vastly underrated Food Lion (not to ruin the secret for fellow OMers, but no lines, cheap prices and a nice selection of organic/natural foods turned me – a diehard Giant person since birth – into a MVP Club member). And in the last year, a new bar opened in Last Chance’s old spot.

Now, as reported in The Examiner last week, long underserved Oakland Mills is actually worrying about being over-served.

The Oakland Mills Village Board in Columbia is busy refurbishing its village center — but a new strip mall that may be built less than a mile away could take away some of the center’s business.

…However, its efforts may collide with developer Robert Bavar of Bavar Properties, who owns about 2.5 acres where Branch Banking & Trust is located at Thunderhill Road and Route 175. He plans to build a different bank and about 9,000 to 10,000 square feet of retail.

“We are doing everything we can to support our businesses. We want to make sure that having competition a half-mile away is not overkill,” said Barbara Russell, the Oakland Mills representative for the Columbia Association Board of Directors.

Bavar will present plans for the buildings to the Oakland Mills community at a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 in The Other Barn on Robert Oliver Place in Columbia. He didn’t say which businesses will be included in his strip.
Oh, the troubles prosperity brings.

I hope to attend the meeting, if for nothing else to see what the new buildings will look like. Since I live on the other side of the village, I don’t know if I’ll ever patronize this new convenience strip, but it’s good to see a long vacant building being put to use again.

Just as it’s good to see the redevelopment of an empty, asphalt lot.
The vacant lot of a former Exxon Mobil gas station may become an office building, potentially prompting development in the Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia.

…Oakland Mills Village officials said Exxon Mobil and Baltimore-based Metroventures USA Inc. recently agreed on the deal to build a condo-style office building on the lot on Stevens Forest Road near Robert Oliver Place.

…Previous proposals for the land have fallen flat. About a year ago, a developer proposed senior housing there, but covenants restrict selling land which was used for a gas station for the development of residential units...

Well, I’m not particularly thrilled about office buildings; ideally, I would like to see them build a mini-golf/go-kart/rollercoaster fun town there. But given the complications of bringing so much fun to the area (not to mention the liability), I understand that an office building is probably a much wiser choice for the developer. But would it kill them to throw a little retail in there, too?

Finally, the last story involves the only pedestrian (and bicycle) link between east and west Columbia: the Route 29 footbridge. Although his rhetoric might be a little overheated, Oakland Mills village board member Phil Engelke does a good job of summarizing our connection problems.
“Route 29 is like the Berlin Wall between East and West Columbia,” said Phil Engelke, property and business chairman on the Oakland Mills Village Board.

The path, tucked behind Lake Kittamaqundi and linking the Town Center to the Oakland Mills Village, will be key as the Town Center is redeveloped into an urban area, he said.

“People are paying half of a million on the Town Center side, and we have fairly derelict apartments on our side,” Engelke said.

“If you could connect the two, it would wildly improve the property values in Oakland Mills,” he said.

He’s right. A stronger link would be very beneficial for our village and much of east Columbia. As for me, I’m strongly in favor of a better connection between Columbia’s halves for entirely selfish reasons: 1) I’d like to see my property’s value increase; and 2) I’d like my commute to be even easier, which already happened to some extent when the bumpy path leading to the bridge was recently (finally!) repaved.

There are plenty of ways of accomplishing these goals (that is, the broader community goals, not mine in particular). During the charrette, many people spoke of the need to reduce the barrier caused by Rt. 29, and it is heartening to see that some of the good ideas brought forth by citizens are now being considered more intently. Among them, according to the Examiner, are “widening the path, installing lights, improving signs, encouraging kiosk vendors to set up shop, creating a dog park adjacent to the path, planting gardens along the path, and lowering the grade to make it accessible for wheelchairs and bikes.”

Some have proposed even more ambitious ideas, including a road connection and commercial development around or on the bridge. Ultimately, such development may prove feasible and essential to creating a whole town center. But it will come in time if needed. For now, I’ll welcome any improvements to make the bridge more useful and Columbia more connected (and, of course, my life easier and my house more valuable).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Mixed up...

You can officially add "mixed use" to the list of buzzwords that once represented something but now seem to mean, well, whatever.

Like smart growth before it, "mixed use" has become the word du jour for developers wishing to show how enlightened their otherwise banal new subdivisions will be. The latest example: Shipley's Grant.

“We are people who believe in really trying to create a community,” said John Slidell, a partner with The Bozzuto Group, which plans to break ground next month.

The 58-acre planned community, called Shipley’s Grant, is between Route 108 and Snowden River Parkway, backing up to Route 100.

The Bozzuto Group, based in Greenbelt, has acquired half the land with the remaining land being developed in phases during the next six or seven years, Slidell said.

The developers wanted to create a “traditional village feel,” Slidell said.

...The Shipley’s Grant complex will include 396 town houses and condominium residences, 62 of which will be built during this first phase. It also will have 40,000 square feet of retail space, such as a food store, coffee shop, dry cleaner and other convenience retail, said Rob Bavar, vice president of Bavar Properties Group, which is developing the retail portion.

Oh yeah, throw "village" onto that list, as well.

I generally support the concept of mixed use but not the predominate practice of it. In theory, such developments encourage less driving, more efficient use of land and a stronger "sense of place." In realty, they generate just as much if not more traffic, use roughly the same amount of land and do nothing to actually foster community. They're just regular old subdivisions with a few shops on the side.

Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Maybe Shipley's Grant is better than I'm giving it credit for. I can't say for sure since I haven't seen the plans. But looking at the mix of houses and commercial space, it's pretty easy to see that few of the neighborhood's future residents will be commuting or running errands on foot or bicycle. At least they'll be close to a highway!

Although I'm not, many people are opposed to growth and perhaps rightly so if this is the type of growth we're accustomed to; it's certainly not the type of growth I support, however.

When I think about growth, I try to look at it in two ways: 1) Inevitable, at least until we enact massive, macroeconomic changes; and 2) potentially beneficial.

Like diamonds, developable land in Howard County is both limited and extremely desirable, meaning people are willing to pay handsomely for it. And it seems to me that if we put these factors to work for us, rather than against us, we have the opportunity to generate significant benefits for current and future residents of this county.

Affordable housing and jobs are oft-cited examples of the benefits of development. So is the possibility of a stronger transit system. But what about the environment or schools or our infrastructure, three things typically considered to decline in quality with an increase in population? Could we actually flip that logic on it's head?

Could we pair development with mandatory set asides for schools, as opposed to the too low impact fees and occasional "proffers" we accept now? What if, instead of requiring the construction of silly stormwater management ponds, we required developers to engage in stream and watershed restorations at the same time we enacted stronger "green" building codes? What if we made developers pay for land preservation? What if we changed parking requirements in mixed use areas to create a disincentives for driving or forced integration of transit systems into subivision plans?

I don't want to get into making an even longer list of "what ifs," but it seems to me that our perspective on growth will dictate to a large extent the type of growth we get. If it's always perceived as bad/costly/undesirablereable, then, chances are, that's what it's going to be. If, however, we look past the challenges and focus on the opportunities, we stand a much better chance of realizing the benefits of growth, mitigating its costs and getting what we really want: a great place to live.