Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Transition talk...

No punches are being pulled in a soon-to-be-released report from County Executive Ken Ulman’s transition team about the planning and housing departments. The Sun has the scoop:

The document recommends broad changes and urges a "top-down analysis" of both departments.

A subcommittee of the transition team prepared the report for newly installed County Executive Ken Ulman. It is scheduled to be delivered to Ulman Friday morning.

…The report says that the Department of Planning and Zoning is "chronically under-staffed ... to keep up with the demand and the changing needs of Howard County" and that its leadership is stretched too thin.

The report's harshest criticisms relate to sagging public faith in both departments.

Planning and Zoning, the report says, "lacks trust, accountability and transparency with the community."

The report uses similar language for the Department of Housing and Community Development, claiming there is an absence of "trust" and "lack of transparency and accountability" with the public.

It also says the department has failed to establish "strong communication with [the] community and business sector."

Although the language is strong, it is not unwarranted. All of these statements are true and evident to even casual observers, particularly those regarding trust and accountability, which are at the core of a lot of public criticism and griping recently (think charrette).

These are interesting and important matters, of course, but they aren’t new. What is new is this:
But the report also notes that the Department of Planning and Zoning has failed to receive sufficient "direction and guidance ... from top county leadership."

The subcommittee member said that Marsha S. McLaughlin, the planning director, "acknowledged to the subcommittee that for the past eight years she operated without specific goals, objectives and directions from the third floor."
This is very different from how you would hear some people say it. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people have the impression that the politicos – in concert with nefarious partners -- are pulling the helpless bureaucracy’s strings. The truth, however, appears to be quite different, but is no less in need of changing.

In general, this report signals a need for direction. The local bureaucracy has inertly creaked along for the last decade, drifting in whatever direction circumstances dictated while problems like outdated and understaffed planning programs and affordable housing shortages mounted. This report – and the election that preceded it – represents a shift from a passive government to an active one, something I think most residents (at least the plugged in ones) support. Whether they will support the actual policies that result from a more active government remains to be seen.

What about it?

What about the cost of BRAC?

Should the federal government help defray the costs it is creating and imposing on our county? Perhaps, though to be fair we are expected to see a non-trivial increase in tax revenue.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tuesday Round Up...

So, say there's a bear that occasionally comes around your house, digs through your trash and craps all over your yard. You're a pretty tolerant person, however, and don't mind too much these intrusions, though your immediate reaction -- before taking time to breath -- is often one of anger and exasperation. Whenever you see him in the yard, which is always at night -- the only time he ever comes out -- you chase him away by banging pots and pans, but have yet to take more serious action. However, some of your neighbors, many of whom he has angered in the past, would shoot him if given the chance, or at least that's how the bear sees it (and to extent, you do, too).

One day, the normally cunning bear leaves a trail that you follow all the way to his den. Although you're sort of pleased with your cleverness in finding his hideaway, you're not quite sure whether it actually matters and you're a little hurt, as the path you had to take to find it was full of thorny bushes.

Nevertheless, the situation leaves you with, basically, three options: You can "handle" the bear situation right then and there on your own (but, as I said, you're a tolerant, non-violent person); you can tell all your neighbors about your discovery and see what comes of it; or you can keep quiet and put up with the occasional trash and bear crap in your yard, knowing that such piles are the price you pay for living in bear country.

So, what do you do?

Anyway, a few stories over the weekend warrant mentioning in a Round Up. So, let's get on with it, then.

I'd be lying if I said news of Brandy Britton's death didn't shock and sadden me. And though I agree with Freemarket that investigating Britton was not the best use of public resources and, more generally, that legalizing the profession would mitigate some of the negative aspects of the black market, the desperation and other factors that lead one to prostitution are things the State, whether through direct or indirect measures, will never eliminate.

A casual read of this story about large "retirement" packages for former county officials probably leaves the average taxpayer fuming. More reasoned analyses from Cindy V and Numbers.girl suggest such anger is misplaced.

Didn't someone recently say commercial development in the county was sagging? Evidence points to the contrary. The best quote from this story: "Surface parking in Howard County will be a fond memory." If only all such inefficient uses of land could be, too.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ooh that smell...

The smell of skunk lingered in the air and my car this morning.

Thankfully, that was the extent of the leftover stink from last night's nearly-tragic attack. While the dog was outside in the yard a series of screams came through our too-thin windows. Naturally, we suspected an unsuspecting creature had wandered into the husky's domain, but instead of finding a happy dog with an unhappy furry thing in his mouth, we opened the door to find him just as intrigued with whatever was happening on the other side of the yard as we were.

And then we smelled it.

We rushed the dog into the house, worried that he had been hit. For several seconds we thought a few drops of spray might have hit is coat, but we soon realized the smell wafting through the house was from us opening the door in the first place.

But the question we asked ourselves repeatedly last night was: "What would we do if the dog had been directly in the line of fire?" With an open floor plan and no basement, garage or even mud room, a skunked dog would surely make our lives miserable.

We decided if he did or ever does get hit, he'd have to stay be outside until he can be properly and thoroughly bathed. But that's clearly not the best solution (not because he couldn't handle it – he is a husky, after all – but because he'd be back in the skunk danger zone). So, I'll ask you, what do you do with a skunked dog?

Aside from that bit of fun, there's not too much to report today, which is just fine with me because I'm leaving tomorrow for a snowboarding weekend in Pennsylvania. So, you won't have me to kick around this weekend (instead, I'll get kicked all at once Monday night when I get home and check my e-mail).

What's up? The Tower. Ha! Actually, it's not quite up and it's not quite down. It's awaiting additional members for the Board of Appeals. You see, the board's vote on whether those challenging the Plaza was split 2-2, an outcome that means the same thing to both sides: "We won!" But, really, nobody won, except maybe the two new board members who get to jump right into the fray on February 12 when the hearing resumes. More here.

BRAC's a big deal and it took up a big chunk of County Executive Ken Ulman's time Monday.

"It's a huge priority of mine to make sure we're focused on infrastructure as BRAC materializes," Ulman said. "Transportation is at the top of the list, and then housing and quality of life."

Ulman traveled to Fort Meade on Monday for a three-hour meeting with Col. Kenneth O. McCreedy, the post's commander, so they could get better acquainted and swap plans to prepare for the post's growth.

"To a large extent, it was a get-to-know-you session about where we are and where Fort Meade is in the process surrounding BRAC," Ulman said.

Ulman has been busy lobbying officials to support the Green Line expansion as well as road improvements. He has met with two Maryland congressmen, Elijah E. Cummings (D) and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D), as well as Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.

When asked about O'Malley, whose support would be key to a Metrorail extension, Ulman said: "I didn't get a strong sense of his direct position, but he indicated an understanding and desire to see mass transit options put forward."

Before we can even consider Metro for Columbia and the rest of Howard County, it needs to make its way to Fort Meade and (presumably) BWI first. This is not to say, however, that we wait to fix our own local transit issues. It seems to me that good local transit leads to good regional transit, rather than the other way around.

Finally, the county has a new website: OK, it's not really a new site, just a new URL, but there are big plans for our little slice of cyber space:
Howard County's new Web address is the first step to creating a more customer-friendly online resource, officials said.

"We want to make ourselves more the Grand Central Station for information and resources in the county," said Ira Levy, the county's new director of the Department of Technology and Communication Services."
That's great, but in an effort to simplify the site's address, they made it necessary to type additional letters. The old site was Twelve characters without the "www." The new address is almost 20 characters. How is that easier?

That's it for now. Think snow!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

To density: the cause of and solution to all life's problems...

I’m going to kind of steal a point made by someone at a meeting last night.

There are two ways to look at Columbia: as a city or as a suburb. Where you stand on this issue significantly impacts your opinion about the future of Town Center – specifically with respect to density.

I think Columbia is a city; it’s the second largest collection of individuals under a common address in the state of Maryland, after all. More importantly, one can sustain their entire existence within its borders. This is perhaps the key point. You can live, work, play and do pretty much everything you need without leaving Columbia (indeed, I rarely venture outside of a two-mile radius from my house).

Those who see Columbia as a suburb, the speaker proposed, are in denial about its true nature, failing to recognize and appreciate its true size and scope of city-like amenities. Efforts to create a “real” downtown make the suburb-in-denial position less tenable, and are therefore resisted by those who want to see it as a suburb.

Now, I didn’t come up with this idea, but I’m repeating it and, obviously, give it some weight. But as a lover of nuance, I’m not trying to divide us along stark ideological lines. Rather, I’m just using this as a set-up to link to Bill Santos’s post from yesterday defining not what Columbia is (we collectively make that decision) but what it was intended to be. Among the quotes he unearths are:

“Downtown Columbia is meant to be a true downtown – not just the heart of Columbia, but the urban hub for a real city between Washington and Baltimore.”

“Allow me to list for you some of the ingredients necessary to attain the downtown we would all enjoy in Columbia:…Downtown needs apartments and condos: At high density within walking distance – on top of things like shops and offices. This is hard to accomplish, but HRD knows how. They may need help with zoning.”
You’ll have to read the whole post to see who said what (hint: neither was Rouse but you will find a Rouse quote there, as well).

Although my comments above show quite clearly my bias, I think it’s pretty evident that Columbia was always intended to be a city with an urban core. That it – on the whole – is also perceived by some as a suburb is a feature, not a bug.

And, no discussion of density this week would be complete without a link to Robert Turner’s great letter to the editor in the Flier.
We all know how expensive land and housing is in Howard County. We also know that restricting development drives costs higher. Simply put, height restrictions limit density and drive up housing costs. Without increased density, affordable and workforce housing will not be economically feasible in the downtown area. We will end up with far fewer housing choices and continue to lose the original vision of economic and racial inclusiveness that embodies Columbia.

Increasing the density of Town Center and allowing some high-rises to be built will be necessary in order to help our community with its affordable and workforce housing crisis. If the Plaza Residences, an attractive market project, is blocked, this will undoubtedly signal similar fates for future projects.
Supply and demand…

Get up, stand up...

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

…[A] state bill would give community and homeowners associations legal standing, or the right, to participate in disputes, allowing the groups to provide financial support and resources.

“Standing is a great problem for citizens in challenging official actions,” said Bridge Mugane, president of the Howard County Citizens Association. “It makes it almost impossible to challenge most things.”

The bill, sponsored by five delegates from Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, would authorize community and homeowners associations to intervene in disputes such as government or court proceedings.

Lobbyists have thwarted legislators’ previous attempts over the last 15 years to allow associations to represent collective community interests in state court, lawmakers said.

State law requires lawsuits to name individual property owners who have a stake in the case, opening them to threats of countersuits and private deals, they said.

Currently to show legal standing, individuals must prove they are “specially aggrieved” by a decision, such as a proposed development, meaning the resident is more affected than the general population is, Mugane said.

More residents may be affected, she said, but they might hesitate to pour the money and time into a court challenge.
So, I’m posting it here in hopes of getting a wide range of feedback to better inform my decision.

On the one hand, I agree that the scales are currently tipped against citizens; the costs of challenging such decisions (in terms of time and money) are daunting and often prohibitive. Also, the concept of “specially aggrieved” seems a little mushy.

On the other hand, we have limits on legal challenges for a reason. Easing the standards could open the process to endless challenges and even NIMBY groups that exist solely to prevent any additional development. Also, these arguments ring hollow:
The judicial system would also benefit from the added resources, said Allen Dyer, an attorney lobbying on behalf of the Falls Road Community Association in Baltimore County.

Community associations can better research the argument, which means judges will hear a well-prepared case, he said.
As I understand it, there’s nothing preventing a community group from assisting a citizen who is challenging a decision in court. Moreover, as is the case with the current Plaza case, citizens are free to raise money on their own to support challenges.

I guess I’m leaning against the bill (barring additional detailed information), but not so much that I’ll dismiss arguments to the contrary.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Monday Round Up...

Was it just me?

Perhaps. I was pretty tired yesterday.

But Sunday's Sun -- my favorite of all local news pages -- left me feeling uninspired; for instance: a profile of the county’s outgoing communications director, an update on our very own Hatfield-McCoy feud (more of the same -- they should really just flip a coin and make the loser move.), and a piece on married couples working together at Howard High School. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of these stories – indeed, I rather enjoyed reading all of them. But simply because a story is worth reading doesn’t mean it’s worth blogging. I have high standards, after all.

So, what is blog-worthy? Uh...

Normally, if there’s snow on the ground, it’s safe to assume that I tracked the predictions and prognostications of our local weather folk to grade their performances (a.k.a. Weatherman Accountability). Unfortunately, there were almost no variations among forecasts and the consensus view before the “storm” (1” of snow) verified. No need for further examination.

Of course, it’s also reasonable to assume that I was out taking numerous pictures of our transformed local landscape and would then post at least one here. Alas, I went skiing yesterday and didn’t get back until well after dark. But, what the heck, here’s a picture Abbzug took of the dog through our kitchen window.

But what about real news, not my boring personal life?

Right Well, here’s a story about the case involving the Plaza Tower. The point of the story is to tell us that a ruling is expected today (Monday) determining whether opponents have legal standing to challenge the project. Hmm. This is kind of an important decision, right? And not just for this specific case. 

This story is basically stock boilerplate that can run – with only a few name changes – whenever a new governor takes office. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Meanwhile, of real interest, vultures are becoming quite the pests around here, unless you’re the type of person who likes them (for instance, me), in which case they’re a welcome addition to the landscape.

Anyway, earlier this year the mixed kettle (venue?) of Turkeys and Blacks was bothering parts of Long Reach and now they’ve moved to my neighborhood, Oakland Mills. For the past couple months I’ve seen them circling above the high school towards sunset as they get ready for a night of tearing the roof off the sucker (literally!).
If you've driven by Oakland Mills High School in the early morning or evening, you might have noticed strobe lights flashing from the roof.

The lights are a way to repel about 100 turkey vultures that roost on the roof and rip away patches of material in the process.

The vultures started showing up in November, and school officials are illuminating the strobe lights every day from 5 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.
The story says “turkey vultures,” but the group is mostly made up of their close relatives, black vultures, which used to be uncommon this far north (draw your own climate change conclusions). And this gives me a chance to include another photo of my dog, this one from last week when we came across the group feeding on a squirrel near the village center.

Finally, this looks like an interesting thing to do on Saturday:

Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives, will offer coffee, dessert, conversation and a film about James W. Rouse and Columbia from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 28.

The event will be held at Historic Oakland, 5430 Vantage Point Road, Columbia.

The program, "Columbia: Share the Vision," is sponsored by the Town Center Community Association.

Kellner will share stories about Rouse, the town's founder, and the early days of Columbia.

Reservations are requested.

Information or to reserve a place: 410-730-4744.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I can tell that we are gonna be friends...

I think the nature of blogging is nitpicking (hey, I’ve said that before!).

It is very much a reactive and spontaneous medium, where more effort is concentrated on quantity and timeliness than thoughtfulness. Obviously, there are exceptions (ahem), but even those who eschew the prevailing mores sometimes get lazy.

Nitpicking isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, especially when you’re discussing something as comprehensive as a 40-page, 30-year plan for Town Center put out by a citizens group. But it’s easy to go from honest nitpicking and detailed examination to snarky contrarianism. I sought the former when I wrote this post a couple days ago, and it caused a bit of a stir.

So, today I’m taking a step back. As I said in the comments, I believe that most of us share the same values with respect to Town Center. Thankfully, CCD’s paper includes a listing of ten items making up “The Community’s Vision for Downtown,” which provides me a way of comparing my overriding principles with those of the group.

Note that this list is at the end of the paper and acts as the summary (the values expressed in the front of the paper are the four guiding principles of Columbia’s founding). I think this community vision list should be at the front of the paper, as the details of any plan must flow down from these higher-level principles.

1. The community supports the continuing development of Downtown and wants it to be done on a human scale and at moderate, not high, density.

I agree, though rather than the moderate density language I would say at a density in-line with the context of the area and values of the community. Sure, my language is squishy, but it’s no squishier than “moderate” density.

I also believe that density should be one of the last items mentioned. To me, it is far less important than ensuring the four principles of our community are upheld. Furthermore, if Town Center’s development were an equation, density would be the dependent variable – that is, the level of density would be dictated by what we expect from Town Center development (i.e., amount of open space set asides, affordable housing, cultural amenities, public transportation, traffic, infrastructure, etc). In short, the more goods we want, the more density we tolerate.

2. The community backs mixed-use development throughout Downtown.


3. The community wants new housing units to be affordable for a wide cross-section of people.


4. The community rejects the proposed major increase in traffic congestion and resulting deterioration of our quality of life.

I don’t like the wording – it is both negative and sounds as though traffic congestion is an end and not an externality. Nobody is proposing increases in traffic. They are proposing increases in development that will result in more traffic. I know this is nitpicky, but I’m a writer and language matters. All that said, I don’t want traffic congestion deteriorating my quality of life. But this is a subjective position and I think Town Center traffic isn’t anywhere near that point now.

5. The community wants to move about safely and conveniently by foot, bicycle, auto, mobility devices, and mass transit.


6. The community desires Downtown to have a wide variety of civic, cultural, and entertainment, amenities.


7. The community recognizes the Lakefront as the heart of Columbia and wants it to be protected against overdevelopment.

Yes, but the “overdevelopment” language is again squishy. I certainly think more development than what is currently there could enhance the Lakefront.

8. The community considers Symphony Woods and the Merriweather Post Pavilion as Columbia’s “Central Park” area, deserving of special consideration.

I agree that they are vital parts of Town Center and should be given special consideration.

9. The community expresses strong support for implementing sound environmental practices in future development.


10. The community is intent on continuing to be actively engaged in decisions concerning their Columbia – the Next America.


That I agree with all of these points may surprise some, but it didn’t surprise me. I’ve been saying, in one way or another, these things for years, a fact that is inconsequential.

What matters now are the steps we take to ensure these values are translated into a workable plan, a phase in the process where examining the details is essential. Which is what I attempted to do in the previous post: examine the details for workability.

So, rather than pointing out how I’m missing the forest for the trees by questioning some of the specifics, please take my criticisms as honest attempts to advance the debate and improve the plan with the understanding that all of us are working towards the same goal.

Thursday Round Up...

I can’t really even call this a Round Up, because I’m only linking to one story. But, whatever. I can give posts any title I want. In fact, I’m renaming this post “Thursday Stock Market Predictions and Hard Boiled Egg Pontification…” Yeah, that’s it.

Anyway, for those of you with good FM antennas, tune into 103.1 WRNR tonight for a chance to hear my band, Bittersweet, live in the Annapolis station’s studio. I’m not exactly sure what we’re doing but I know I need to be ready to go on at 9 pm.

For those of you who don’t have good FM antennas but still want to hear the band, tomorrow (Friday) is your lucky day. We’ll be playing all night at Ram’s Head in Savage, and the best part is: it’s free! Well, that and you get to see me dance.

Anyway, let’s get on with the Round Up, er, you know…

Although it may raise the cost of government and require additional planning staff, this strikes me as a good idea:

A Howard County planning and zoning staff member should attend community meetings with developers to address questions from residents, community activists said.

“It’s an opportunity for [residents] to connect to the department and the department to connect to them,” said Grace Kubofcik, co-president of the Howard County League of Women Voters, at Tuesday’s public hearing.

Residents want this provision to be included in a bill introduced by Council Member Courtney Watson, D-District 1. The proposal requires the so-called pre-submission meetings between the community and developers be held in a public building within five miles of the site, extending the current three-mile requirement.

But “we’re short on a lot of staff to do a lot of things,” said Planning and Zoning Director Marsha McLaughlin, who instead suggested providing more guidance to the developer on what questions they should be prepared to answer or issues to discuss.

The department also could provide a handout for residents explaining the zoning process and answering some frequent questions, McLaughlin said.
Handouts? Really? Don’t they already offer such materials on their website? Yes, yes they do.

I know sending a staff person to each pre-submission meeting is a burden on existing resources, but it would also provide a good deal of value to the process. I only hope that those supporting such a provision will also support the funding necessary to make it happen.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Just checking in...

Nothing really newsy to report today, but see the post below for an ongoing discussion about various things Town Center.

Actually, I did want to mention one thing -- something I was talking to a friend about today. Salaries. Does the Sun seem overly preoccupied with reporting every last dollar earned by the County Executive's appointments? Every story I've seen, including today's, reports these figures.

While I understand that this information is and should be publicly available, is a dogmatic insistence on knowing and disseminating it a symptom of the same problematic cultural tendencies that led to the Environmental Protection Agency saying with confidence that the value of your life is around $6.1 million, give or take? Or am I reading too far into this?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

It ain't easy...

Though superficially something I would support, this idea from the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown is misguided:

We support requiring that a minimum of 20 percent of the lot area of each individual parcel be devoted to public open space.
Thus far, my criticisms of CCD (here and on other blogs) have centered on the inconsistencies of their positions (asking for both low density and Metro), an unnecessary and counterproductive focus on numbers (e.g. 1600, 5500, 14 stories, etc.), and the propagation of an “Us vs. Them” mentality with respect to General Growth, the County and anyone who isn’t a “citizen.”

Since the group recently released its 40-some-page position paper, I’m finding areas for more substantive debate. And though I haven’t had a chance to digest the full paper and its arguments, I did have enough time to further contemplate why the 20 percent set aside is wrong.

First, let’s leave aside the questions posed by Wordbones a while back about whether this requirement would be in addition to the existing New Town Zoning requirement calling for 36 percent of Columbia’s land to be set aside as open space. That seems to be an argument solely for pedants (and I even include myself in that category, as you’ll see in a moment).

My concern with the 20 percent set aside is more substantive. And because I’m feeling lazy and I need to go buy a suit and a new bed for the mutt (just adding some personal bloggy flavor), I’ll just repost my concerns as stated in the comments from Wordbones’ post:
Yes, it's important that open space requirements are met, but it's more important that the open space we set aside adds something to the overall character of the place and fits in with the whole.

Saying that ever parcel must have a 20 percent set aside fails to account for the fact that on some parcels, finding 20 percent that would contribute to the general welfare of Town Center is impossible. Whereas, on some parcels, a larger set-aside would be feasible and desirable. An overly prescriptive plan might allay some fears of the unknown, but it won't result in the best Town Center, which is, I thought, what we all wanted.
Which is a long-winded way of saying, quality is better than quantity. And when it comes to open space, quality is defined by the value it adds to the overall health of the ecosystem first and to the community at large second. And in order to understand such values, it is essential that we preserve open space according to a plan -- specifically a Green Infrastructure plan.

I discussed at great length green infrastructure a while ago, so I won't go too far into it now. But I'll share the definition and a few key excerpts to give those of you not inclined to click the link an idea of what I mean:
The foundation for the idea of green infrastructure is similar to that of our "gray" or built infrastructure -- namely, that a comprehensive, interconnected and well-planned network of facilities (open spaces, in the case of green infrastructure) is the best way to ensure the entire system functions effectively and provides the highest return on our investments. Also like gray infrastructure, green infrastructure can be costly, especially in areas where land values and development pressures are high, like Howard County.

Just as we expect our roads to connect and our water and sewer systems to be built with adequate capacity to meet our needs, our system of green spaces should also connect and should also have the capacity to ensure healthy, functioning ecosystems. Or, according to The Conservation Fund:

"Green Infrastructure is the Nation's natural life support system – a strategically planned and managed network of wilderness, parks, greenways, conservation easements, and working lands with conservation value that supports native species, maintains natural ecological process, sustains air and water resources, and contributes to the health and quality of life for America's communities and people."

...Similar to land development in general, land preservation and conservation efforts, in their most prevalent current form, are conducted in an ad hoc, haphazard and unplanned manner. Rather than looking at acquisitions and easements in a broader context, investigating how a parcel will fit within and contribute to the overall strength of the existing green network, expenditures are made based on short-term needs, often because of political or economic expediency.
Green infrastructure is an idea people have trouble wrapping their heads around. Many, including CCD, confuse it for "green" grey infrastructure -- that is, building eco-friendly sewer pipes, roads, sidewalks, storm water management systems, etc. Here's what CCD has to say about green infrastructure:

In particular, County officials should develop and foster Green Infrastructure that minimizes disturbances to the land caused by the installation of roads and utilities. This concept, which is receiving national attention, also fosters the idea of using storm-water runoff for park and streetscape irrigation systems. Roads and pathways in Downtown Columbia should be designed to support the environment. Elements of a green circulation system would include the use of environmentally appropriate construction materials for roads, pathways, parking lots; lighting that incorporates solar as well as other alternative electrical power; landscaping that helps provide traffic calming as well as minimizing storm water runoff, etc. In addition, the overall system should be designed so as to maximize appeal and accessibility.

As you can see, what CCD is advocating for is basically the use of green building techniques when designing and building infrastructure. While I'd like to see greater use of permeable pavement and the like, I'd really like to see an integrated approach to land preservation similar to what I described above. Just as it's essential for man-made systems to connect, natural ones must, too. Basically, a patch of open space outside of Cheesecake Factory and one near the library are worthless on their own, whereas the same two patches of open space in a connected natural system along the edges of a stream are probably doing some good.

By requiring a 20 percent set aside for each parcel, we could lose potentially valuable open spaces as the developer meets only the minimum requirements. On the other hand, if we take a wider perspective and mandate a Town Center-wide preservation strategy -- similar to the 36 percent set aside that is part of the New Town Zoning regulations -- we could channel development and open space to the most appropriate areas and maximize benefits for everyone.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Moving on...

Because I'm sure it's the one thing most of you have thought about for the past couple days, yes, I'm OK.

The Ravens loss was indeed difficult to stomach, but as I said to everyone who asked me about it afterward, Saturday was, on balance, rather enjoyable; "more good hours than bad ones," were my exact words, I think. Which is true. I woke up with a clear and strong sense of purpose, spent hours with my brother and friends eating and reveling with fellow purple-clad fans in the parking lot, watched a tense game, and talked some trash to three rows worth of Colts fans who sat behind me (one of whom threatened to not come to my house if it was burning, because he's a morally-deficient fire fighter who, apparently, makes decisions on who to help based on sports allegiences). Most importantly, I left it all on the field, as they say, and walked out of the stadium with my vocal chords in tatters.

But enough about that. Actually, enough with the blog for the day. There aren't any simmering stories that need comment, whereas the warmth, intermmittent sunlight and my dog are desperately in need of some Hayduke time. So, I'm turning off the computer for the day...

See you tomorrow!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Friday Round Up...

I’m having trouble focusing. Actually, I’m having trouble doing anything other than staring happily at the Ravens tickets that I acquired today. They’re so pretty and…mine.

I know many of you aren’t sports or Ravens fans, and that’s fine. Just don’t bother telling me how much you dislike one or both. Today is not the time for that.

Anyway, since I can’t focus and probably won’t sleep much tonight, the best I can offer is this paltry Round Up.

Let the fun begin: The task force studying the senior tax credit rolled up its sleeves and got to work this week (a lazy phrase, I know, but as I said, focusing is a problem). The star of the story thus far has to be tax-fighter Pat Dornan, who after basically calling the task force a sham, let this one go: “‘The bill's purpose was clearly to get votes. That's a morally repugnant reason to pass anything,’ Dornan said.” I agree! The only reason it passed was because no politician worth his salt (there’s another lazy one) would vote against tax relief for seniors the week before an election. I wonder who exactly Dornan blames for the bill. More here.

Always late to the party: Poor Columbia Flier, they publish this short-on-details story yesterday, only to have the Sun today fill in all the blanks. As for the content of the stories, disturbing.

Have I mentioned I got tickets to the Ravens game tomorrow?

The legal battle over Comp Lite rages on.

Finally, congratulations to Hayduke’s sister for making the President’s Honor Roll at Montana State (and for getting herself, her husband and all three dogs home safely from their trip “back east”). See if you can find her on this list.

And, since we’re mentioning siblings, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that my brother and I are going to the Ravens game tomorrow!

Ok, that’s enough.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Pull my finger...

The idea of harnessing methane from the county landfill has been batted around for several years, but it wasn't until Chris Merdon proposed using it to fuel county facilities and vehicles during his campaign that the idea reached a wider auidience.

On paper, capturing methane – a powerful greenhouse gas, though one with a relatively short atmospheric residence time – sounds like a good idea. After all, it's a naturally-occuring byproduct of our rotting waste that we can convert into energy (the county currently burns it off, releasing carbon dioxide, a larger threat to the atmosphere).

But what about in the real – that is, non-paper – world, where we have to consider whether it's actually worth it?

Today's Examiner, er, examines this issue, which came up during a recent meeting involving County Executive Ken Ulman and a local group, Transportation Advocates.

"The question is if there are cost savings," County Executive Ken Ulman said this week at a Transportation Advocates meeting.

The possibility of converting methane gas, a landfill waste byproduct, into fuel for the county's bus fleet was raised at the forum.

During the campaign, County Executive candidate Chris Merdon proposed using the methane gas for heat and electricity.

Ulman said he had asked the Department of Public Works to look into harnessing the methane gas to power the nearby public safety academy.

Howard would still need backup power and have to build the infrastructure to support the conversion, Ulman said. Because the Alpha Ridge landfill is small, it may not be producing enough methane gas to make it a worthwhile investment.
Meanwhile, from yesterday's Sun we get this:
Ulman said he would like to do that but has been advised by public works officials that not enough gases are produced at the old New Cut Landfill or at Alpha Ridge to make fuel conversion practical.
(I'm not sure why there's a discrepancy in reporting between the two papers, but that's beside the point.)

David Keelan is disappointed by Ulman's seeming unwillingness to aggressively entertain this idea, suggesting that the county executive is making assertions that run counter to "EPA studies." Although he doesn't include them on his blog, Keelan provided links to some EPA documents on the Howard County Citizens Association email group.

The links, however, do not lead to studies showing that Alpha Ridge is a really a viable source of energy, but rather to a site for the 7th annual conference of the Environmental Protection Agency's Landfill Methane Outreach Program, an event that included a presentation by Evelyn Tomlin of the Howard County Environmental Services Department.

Tomlin's presentation is more marketing piece for the businesses attending the conference than study demonstrating that methane extraction is completely feasible in Howard County. Indeed, of the eight slides, only two address potential "recovery" and none address whether the landfill's emmissions are significant enough to yield returns.

Although Alpha Ridge is listed by EPA as a "candidate" site for methane recovery, the only necessary qualification for inclusion as such appears to be existance as a landfill. But with the data available (links to an Excel spreadsheet from EPA's site) we can compare Alpha Ridge to other landfills in the state that are producing methane for energy and get a rough idea of whether it should really be considered a candidate.

First, below is a graph from Tomlin's presentation showing recovery potential over time. Note that Alpha Ridge now operates mainly as a waste transfer station -- that is, it buries only a "small portion of Howard County trash."

As you can see above, the recovery potential is projected to steadily decline, and in 2007 is likely yielding only 500 standard cubic feet per minute (scfm). After converting this number to millions of standard cubic feet per day (mmscfd), we can see how Howard's potential flow stacks up to that of four Maryland energy producing landfills (there are two other such sites listed in the EPA database but neither has data on methane flow).

Alpha Ridge generates significantly less methane each day than the others, and this discrepency will only grow as its emissions diminish over time.

Now, this analysis is not meant to imply that capturing methane from our landfill is a foolish or wasteful endeavor, as it would generate additional benefits besides energy production -- namely, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

I think it does show, however, that Howard County is not the optimal site for this, but a cost-benefit analysis would be necessary to gain a complete understanding of the issue. (And because I'm a tree hugger and wanna-be economist, I would include environmental benefits as a line item in any feasibilty calculations.)

Certainly, Ulman shouldn't hastily write-off this idea because it started as a campaign pledge from another candidate, but I'd also urge caution to others when claiming that EPA attests to Alpha Ridge's viability. If anything, I would point to the lack of a corporate partner as an argument to the contrary.

Now, if we believe that there are larger benefits to methane capture and choose to make it a priority, we could send our trash to landfills where it exists. Our current disposal site is King George County Landfill in Virginia, and, no, it doesn't practice methane capture. Actually, if this story from The Nation is to be believed, it appears our dump is on the leading edge of any increasingly environmentally destructive industry.

Seems to me that if we want to do what's right for the environment and our budget, shipping our trash to a "greener" landfill is probably our best option.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Three things...

Just three non-HoCo items to pass on today.

1. Congratulations to Cal Ripken, Jr. on being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

2. This guy is an idiot.

3. Naturally, I want one of these.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Bits and pieces...

Lots and lots of stuff to get through today as the Hayduke household prepares to settle in for a night of big-time college football. Go Bucks!

Before going on to the main course, how about a few bits and pieces?

Like Freemarket, I'm concerned about the weather, but not because of its relation to global warming (which I think is happening but isn't the main culprit behind our crummy, entrenched, warm weather pattern of late). Mainly, I'm concerned because I have a trove of snowboard-related Christmas gifts that aren't getting used aside from the 15 minutes each day I spend praying for snow while dressed in my full "uniform," a practice that Abbzug has grown weary of but the dog still finds terribly entertaining.

My hesitancy to blame global warming for our stupid (so far) winter doesn't preclude me from mentioning a possible solution to the problems of carbon emissions and climate change: Work less.

What's going on this week? Here's a list of meetings and events this week that might or might not be of interest to you, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun:

Tonight: Planning Board // Will hold a public work session on case PB 378 - G&R Maple Lawn Inc. at 6:30 p.m. in the Tyson Room, George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.

Tomorrow (Tuesday): Board of Zoning Appeals // The hearing examiner will hear case BA 576-D (Robert and Margaret Taylor, trustees) at 10 a.m. in the Ellicott Room, George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.

Wednesday: Senior Tax Credit Task Force // Will meet at 2 p.m. in the Tyson Room, George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.

Howard County Base Realignment and Closure Task Force // Will meet at 3:30 p.m. in Classroom 6 of the Gateway Building, 6751 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia.

Thursday: Howard County delegation // The Howard County delegation to the General Assembly will hold a hearing on proposed 2007 local bills at 7:30 p.m. in the Banneker Room, George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City. The hearing will be televised live on Gtv.

General Growth Properties and Howard Community College will present a talk by Adam Lerner, executive director of the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar, in Lakewood, Colo., at 7 p.m. Thursday at the college's Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia.

Make some room...

So, it looks like the 800 pound gorilla in Town Center will be adding a few inches to its waistline.

The Mall in Columbia needs to expand again as plans to redevelop Town Center move forward, according to Douglas M. Godine, vice president and general manager of General Growth Properties Inc., the primary landowner and developer of the city.

"The demand is much greater than the supply, and we want to protect our interests here in Columbia and keep those retailers that may be looking elsewhere and who want to come to Columbia. But we don't have the space for them," Godine said.

"We are addressing how we can expand the mall to add retail shops, and that will take a long period of time, but we are confident that we will get there," he said.

A spokesman for General Growth said the mall has 1.4 million square feet of retail space. Its last expansion was in 2004, when a movie theater, a row of restaurants and an L.L. Bean store were added.

Godine declined to give details of the expansion plans, but he said they will be included in the GGP downtown Columbia plan, which is expected to be unveiled in April.

The project is to include "green" architecture, affordable housing and arts and culture, Godine said during Thursday's annual State of Columbia Luncheon, sponsored by the Columbia Business Exchange.

"Our plan will address some of the important issues that will affect the way people live here," Godine told the audience of about 100 business owners and policymakers.

The company's plan will be in the form of suggestions for the county's master plan for downtown, which officials expect to unveil this spring.
I'm a little troubled by this because the mall was basically ignored as part of the charrette and, in some ways, it's the antithesis of what the Town Center Master Plan is trying to accomplish. Nevertheless, I'll hold off on my full assessment until I see GGP's plan for downtown in April.

Meanwhile, Bill Santos takes a trip in the way-back machine and looks at promises made prior to a previous mall expansion.

More senior housing...

As we debate tax cuts for seniors with the good fortune of owning homes that just keep getting more valuable, it's important to remember there are many for whom increasing tax bills would be a welcome sign of progress. Thanks to some of those "greedy developers," a few of the truly less fortunate seniors are finding refuge.

Perched on a hillside above historic Ellicott City's Main Street, Howard County's new 25-unit Tiber-Hudson apartment building was designed as a welcome refuge for vulnerable older people.

The earth-tone block, brick and glass building is owned by the county's Housing Commission and is designed for those ages 62 and older with limited incomes and who are struggling with a variety of medical and housing problems. The three-story, $3 million building is intended to allow residents to stay, even as they become more frail.

…The apartments range from 480 to 645 square feet, and each has a bedroom, living room, small kitchen and a large bathroom, equipped with handrails and easy-entry showers. Rents range from $250 to $500 depending on income, including utilities, according to Timi Lash, the county's property manager.

…Leonard S. Vaughan, the former county housing director, crafted the deal for the building with developer Paul Revelle and builder Dale Thompson, who are selling upscale retirement homes starting at $550,000 at Scott's Glen, on Cedar Lane at Owen Brown Road in Columbia.

Revelle and Thompson were required to provide 14 moderate-income units in Scott's Glen, but condominium fees and taxes would have made it hard for limited-income buyers to afford them. So they agreed to build Tiber-Hudson instead, at cost. In addition, they contributed $1.2 million to the project, while giving the county nine more units.

"It wound up as pretty much a good deal for both parties," Revelle said.

I'd say so.

Here comes the new boss...

When the new governor takes office in just over a week, it will once again be safe in Maryland to say the words "smart growth."

With O'Malley taking office, Marylanders could see a push for mass transit and state control over where new houses go for the thousands expected to move here because of a hot job market and military realignment. And state residents should expect the revival of the concept of Smart Growth, popularized by former Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening.

The idea -- that government should use resources to steer growth to urban areas and away from rural vistas -- was a favorite of Glendening's, but it fell out of favor when Ehrlich took office four years ago.

Ehrlich dismantled the cabinet-level Office of Smart Growth started by Glendening, a move Ehrlich said would spread the concept to all state agencies but critics said indicated a reluctance to implement Smart Growth ideas.

"I feel like Smart Growth was mostly buried under the Ehrlich administration," said Del. William Bronrott, a Montgomery Democrat. "The Smart Growth flag was flying high under Glendening. Then it was lowered to half-mast under Ehrlich."

O'Malley plans to revive the Office of Smart Growth, and he will create an office to plan for military growth, spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. O'Malley also plans to look into more mass transit, Abbruzzese said, including the possible extension of Washington's subway system to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

And this news actually comes on the heels of a story from last week about an effort in the General Assembly to create regional planning groups.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is pushing legislation to control suburban sprawl in Maryland by creating regional authorities that could overrule local governments and veto large development projects.

Proponents say the goal is to promote regional planning and avoid clashes such as the one last year over the Blackwater Resort, a proposed 3,200-home development that initially was approved by local government, then criticized as too large and too close to a wildlife refuge. It was eventually scaled back to 675 homes.

"What's become clear to us is [that] these very large, mega-developments really have regional impacts, and we need to look at them from a regional perspective," said Kim Coble, a foundation director.

Under the legislation, seven planning committees made up of local and state officials would represent zones from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland and vote on large projects. These authorities would also write comprehensive plans for their regions and add a second level of government scrutiny to what now are local decisions.

Vermont has used regional planning commissions since the 1970s. A similar program in Florida was watered down.

The dance begins. As these programs and legislation move forward, finding the balance between local, regional and state control over growth is going to be difficult. Although I'm firmly in support of keeping local matters local, there is no doubt that growth creates regional problems that local governments don't have the ability or desire to deal with (I'm looking at you, Frederick and Carroll Counties, and all the commuters you dump on our roads).

Furthermore, in order to have any realistic chances of getting a decent public transportation system in central Maryland, it will require a concerted effort from all local governments, as well as the state and any friends we may have in the federal government.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tasked force...

So, it’s official: a task force will study the last-minute, hyperpolitical senior tax cut passed by four guys who aren’t around anymore and Calvin Ball (the last county council). Though I support some sort of tax relief for overburdened, fixed income seniors, I’m not a fan of this particular cut -- for reasons you can read about here.

The task force is charged with analyzing the tax cut and recommending changes (a good place to start would be an assets test). There’s considerable concern, however, with the time frame the task force is operating under -- they’re set to convene on January 19 and, well, here’s the Examiner’s summary:

The group must make recommendations by Feb. 22, in case the council wants to change the law, passed unanimously in October, which grants a 25 percent tax break to seniors age 70 and older making less than $75,000 a year. The group will have until November to review how many people take advantage of the tax cut and how it has affected the county budget. The group will also “monitor changes to state law that relate to senior tax policy and review similar credits in other Maryland counties,” the resolution states.

So, they have just over a month to recommend changes that could be made before this year’s tax bills go out, after which point repealing or amending the tax code would be akin to raising taxes for seniors, not a good thing, politically speaking.

Does this seem too short a time frame to you, even considering the broader work of the committee which will last until November?

My take is that this is probably the perfect amount of time, and here’s why: Most of the 17 members of this task force will be reasonably well-informed, connected and engaged in the community. Like you and I – people who follow this stuff closely – they’ve known for a while about the tax cut, the task force, the short time frame, all that. Chances are, they’ve already made up their minds.

What’s more, most of the number-crunching (fiscal impact analyses) have been conducted and simply need to be reprinted for members of the task force to glance at as they barrel towards their deadline.

Therefore, a month should be plenty of time to come up with a few recommendations and draft a few pages of text in support of them. The longer a committee serves, I think, the higher the risk of it getting stuck in a quagmire. See, for instance, the rural west preservation committee from last year.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Seeing green...

A couple months back The Sun showed how little it knows about green buildings by asking residents how much of a "premium" the county should pay for such attributes on its new buildings. I call into question the paper's intelligence because, as I said at the time, "the future savings often outweigh the upfront premium (even accounting for the time value of money), meaning we would have actually paid a premium to be not-green."

In this month's Business Monthly, those who know about building costs weigh in. Although the story isn't up on the Monthly's website, here are a few key paragraphs.

[COPT CEO Rand Griffin] offered more numbers to contemplate: The 125,000-square-foot structure cost COPT $2.87 more per square foot to build than a regular building, "but we think that the operating costs were dropped by 50 cents per square foot," Griffin said. "That equates to a five-year cash payback, if you look at it that way."
So, in five years, well short of the intended life span of pretty much every structure but tents, the up-front premium actually results in a savings, something most of us may assume to be true intuitively. Developers, however, don't rely solely on intuition when running the numbers on a project.

Here's more:
While stating that the premium to build green has dropped from 8% to 20% down to just 1% or 2% in a decade, [Urban Land Institute senior fellow Ed McMahon] acknowledged that a number of builders are building green but are not certified because the process is time consuming and the process itself costs money. McMahon still said the time to hop on the bandwagon is now.

"If your development firm is not building green within the next three years, your property will be losing value in the marketplace," he said, adding that green construction will be a prerequisite for any class A building.

..."One developer said to me that the biggest cost of financing their own building," McMahon said, "had been the cost of their own ignorance."
With several jurisdictions already mandating green technology for public and large private buildings -- including Montgomery County, whose requirements are among the strictest in the nation -- and an expressed desire from new County Executive Ken Ulman to foster a more sustainable and innovative county, it seems pretty certain that green will be a requirement in the very near future in Howard County.

What remains to be seen, however, is how far Howard County will go. With developers catching on to green buildings, it wouldn't make much sense for us to require what the market is already doing on its own. Rather, the function of any local green building mandate should push the market -- through a balance of requirements and incentives -- towards environmental sustainability or even restoration (not coincidentally, a focus of the Howard County Tomorrow group I'm involved with).

Examples of regulations leading the market instead of following it might include requirements for green technology in residential buildings, green neighborhoods, and other practices that enhance, rather than degrade, the environment.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Transitional Round Up...

Off in the distance, if you listen really close, you can probably hear the creaking of hamster wheels resuming the tireless spinning that keeps this blog going.

It’s always a slow, inelegant transition from one year to the next – oh, the shredding of mislabeled checks well into February -- but this blog should find its flow in a couple days weeks. No need to rush, right? We’ve got the whole year.

Keeping in mind the nature of this sub-month, how about a transitional Round Up? In this sense, “transitional” means primarily that it will exist somewhere in the transition from bad to just OK, though let’s see if we can make it an overarching theme in this post, too.

Am I making sense? I hope not.


A new housing director is appointed, then profiled. Read all about Howard’s young head housing honcho, Stacey Spann, and the journey he’s taken in this Baltimore Sun piece.

A new governor takes office, Republicans lose jobs. This story is about the goodly group of Howard Countians appointed to by the Ehrlich administration, almost all of whom are now looking elsewhere for work. As with anyone who enters politics as a profession, none seem crestfallen by the transitory reality they’re facing. In fairness, the story’s first line is miserable, and not even in a malicious or biased way. It’s just so…lazy.

Hammond High gets a new football coach. Cautious alumni hope for a winning percentage north of a respectable major league batting average. For the non-sports inclined, I’d say upping the win total from two to three would be a good start.

Beer for tree-huggers. Yum.


The Columbia Association approves funding for our city’s 40th birthday party, and the story’s first quote from a board member is: “This is a bad vote.” I’m not sure why board chair Tom O’Connor feels this way (something about conflicting with the Festival of the Arts, maybe?), but then, I never really know what to expect from my suburban overlords. Best to not think too much, I suppose. Anyway, the party will last 40 days and 40 nights, which I also think is a little odd.

In other CA news, they’re still addressing symptoms and not causes. Here’s our predicament: Angst-ridden, rebellious teenagers are bored by their cloistered suburban existence. In search of fun, they convince older siblings or morally-challenged strangers to purchase for them light beers and wine coolers – booze that goes down (and comes up) easily. They consume said beverages in authority-free zones, which, around here, consist of tot-lots during the darkness of night. This upsets non-teenage residents, who enjoy taking their children to playgrounds that aren’t littered with partying paraphernalia and sleeping without the sound of revelry in the background. These residents request that something be done to stop this menace. CA puts up a sign and issues platitudes about “enforcing the rules.”

What if, instead of more signs, we had more activities for teenagers? What if we installed lights on a few public basketball courts and let kids play all night? What if we had at least one night of teenage garage bands every week at a CA facility? What if there were a few nightspots in Columbia that weren’t solely intended for use by over-21 residents?

Seems to me that teenagers are as good as the rest of us at assessing options, and given a set of viable set, they usually make half-way decent decisions. Unfortunately, tot lots are but one of only a few local options for entertainment; they are also the only places where the cloud of “parent-sanctioning" is not so heavy.

Other “Sames:” Growth. Local questions bringing people from all over out of the woodwork (Connecticut? Canada?).