Tuesday, February 27, 2007

But political incompatibility led to their downfall...

My boss and I were talking today about problems – specifically, how we approach them. Although, as in everything, there is a continuum and not a dichotomy, we agreed that there seem to be two camps: one that seeks to fully and accurately describe the problem and one that does something about it.

The point of this is, of course, not to bore you with the philosophical discussions my boss and I share, but rather to put it in the context of Howard County. Accordingly, our conversation got me thinking about this article from a couple weeks ago (read it quick before the Sun makes you pay for the privilege). For the sake of this post's context, here are a few key excerpts:

John Liparini walked in from a snow flurry at 7:30 p.m., armed with facts and figures in support of two modest developments in Elkridge to aid moderate-income families. Less than 90 minutes later, he bowed to unrelenting opposition from residents and scrapped both projects, at least temporarily.

That experience encapsulates a broader issue for the county: The divergence between public policy and public will.

The conflict, some say, may be the county's single largest problem because it pervades discussions on many of the most critical issues.

"I think it is true that there is a conflict between what the general public wants and what the politicians want or the government believes should happen," says Katherine L. Taylor, an attorney who has represented residents opposed to development. "Unless the public policy is one to benefit the people who are directly affected by the land-use changes, I think there will always be that conflict."

…"It's a challenge," says Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. "The county is a wonderful place to be, and we have a great quality of life. ... But there is a very limited amount of land. One option is to sprawl all over western Howard County, but we're trying not to do that."

McLaughlin says a "larger public dialogue" might be beneficial to shape development policy.

…Taylor faults elected officials with too often fashioning policy with no thought of public response to implementation.

"The error that politicians make, and the developers as well, is not stepping into the shoes of the people who live there and saying, 'What would we want here? What would we expect?' " Taylor says.

"The big problem is that the people who are affected have no input or no choice. The only way they have input is to be protestants -- opposing something."

That has been especially evident in the efforts to provide housing for moderate- and low-income families.

While the need for those units is rarely disputed, that has not translated into acceptance for specific developments in many cases.

Indeed, the problem was underscored recently when a report to County Executive Ken Ulman noted that providing affordable housing "is one that the community supports in principle, but often opposes in implementation."

I rather enjoyed the article when I first read and have thought about it several times since, but whenever I considered writing about it, the only thing I could come up with was: So what? It's a perfectly articulated description of the big picture problem, but that's it.

These discussions, debates, contrasts and such are clearly evident to anyone who's ever paid attention to the local news or read the local blogs. We're dealing with them every day, hopefully groping towards something resembling common ground but, more likely, solidifying further the divide.

So, in order to make some use of what is truly decent journalism, let's look at it as a springboard to something more -- a "larger public dialogue" perhaps. And though I know it's been an idée fixe on this blog for some time, affordable housing seems like as good a topic as any.

Since the article is inherently about the disconnect between preferences and will, we should home in on that – specifically, as it relates to affordable housing, something that's popular to support in theory but oppose in practice.

I think the case has been made that the county is sorely lacking in affordable housing opportunities (but, please, feel free to refute this) and, therefore, the discussion should start with the question: "What do we do about it? Specifically?"

Here's a list of some of my thoughts. It's not fully developed or explained, but it's a start. Please share your thoughts in the comments.
  • Public subsidies? Probably not on the local level, but if we're talking about really low income housing (which we should), then state or federal funding should come into play.
  • Greater density, where appropriate? Absolutely.
  • Creative redevelopment projects, including village centers, to increase the amount of available land? Yes.
  • Less restrictions on growth (i.e., increased annual housing allocations)? Perhaps.
  • A smoother development process? Likely, especially for projects including affordable units.
  • Mandatory set asides/Inclusionary Zoning? OK, but this approach strictly proportional to the total amount of annual development and therefore is limited in its capacity to make any progress. It's much more of a "treading water" approach.
  • Fewer restrictions on housing type and size (i.e. allowing developers to build smaller houses)? Certainly.
  • Quasi-public money (housing trust funds, tax increment financing, housing bond issuances)? Yes, depending on feasibility.
There are more options to choose from here.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Cause then I guess I just won't get paid...

(Cheesy lyrics, I know).

Well, how about that?

Yesterday's snowstorm surprised just about everyone. I didn't even bother with a Weatherman Accountability, because every forecast called for a bit of ice in the morning followed by rain, which, clearly, did not happen. I am certainly not complaining, however (except maybe about those pesky kids knocking down my awesome snowman).

Anyway, despite being cold enough for snow outside, commenting action on this blog was pretty hot -- not that you'd know, as I'm still having trouble fixing the Recent Comments box in the sidebar. My apologies for that, even though the fault lies with Blogger. Expect to see that feature removed if I can't get it fixed soon.

Feel free to post anything you want in the comments of this post. Consider it an open thread, if you will. Meanwhile, I have to go, so I won't be late for another Monday misadventure.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Yes we're going to a party party...

Or, Friday dog blogging.

Or, Abbzug's almost-birthday post.

In honor of the birthday birthweek birth-month of my lovely bride (yes, she gets a whole month... don't ask), I'm posting a picture of her favorite living creature. I'm a distant second, I'm afraid.

I know, another picture of the dog. You're probably wondering when I'll run out of them. Not any time soon. My iPhoto library contains 8201 pictures and probably more than half involve the dog.

Anyway, Happy Birthday (tomorrow) Abbzug!

(Does this post get me out of buying a present?)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Frames can't catch you when you're moving like that...

Hmm. Do you think I'll get in trouble for posting this? Aw, heck, what are they going to do, shut me down? Go ahead and try.

Here it is, for the many who have clamoured for it: the State of the County address from Tuesday night. Somewhere between TiVo, DVD, Handbrake, iMovie and Google Video, the dubbing got a little screwy. Oh, well.

And I feel like I'm a cog in something turning...

Following up on yesterday's post about the proposed interim height limit for Town Center that would retroactively apply to the Plaza Tower, there are a couple news items worth mentioning.

First, I'm glad to see that the Flier's editorial this week largely agrees with my take, saying such a measure is both "unfair and bad government." Which is true.

But of more concern to me from the news today are comments made by the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown's spokesman, Alan Klein, who fully supports the temporary height limit being proposed by council member Mary Kay Sigaty.

"It is a victory for all of the people in Columbia," said Alan Klein, a spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, a citizen's group that opposes the construction of Plaza-like high-rise buildings in Town Center. "It is certainly a first step, a way to put (the height limit) back where it belongs."
I know this may seem like it's a bizarre fetish of mine -- pedantically questioning CCD's language choice -- but it's frustrating to see the continued use of phrases like "all of the people in Columbia" when the group clearly does not represent all of the people in Columbia. Indeed, another Tower roadblock is, for many, a defeat. There are actually Columbians who want to live in the Tower and many who would just like to see the future of Town Center become reality rather than just an abstract, incomplete plan.

Another reason I think such talk is damaging is that it continues to paint the picture as one of citizens versus... uh, others, be they developers, planners, politicians, whoever. There are not two sides fighting for only two different things in the debate over Town Center.

In a perfect world, there would be no sides, just individuals with different backgrounds and ideas working towards compromise. In the real world, there are many sides hoping for a plan that reflects some/most/all of their values and visions.

In the Examiner, meanwhile, Klein makes another point I disagree with:
“Our belief was from the beginning it was a mistake to exempt the tower plans from the charrette process,” said Alan Klein, spokesman for Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown, a resident’s activist group.
Was it really the case that the Tower was exempt from the planning process, or was it simply not on enough people's radar screens prior to the charrette?

Very long-time readers of this blog will remember that I posted something about the Tower (which included a picture of the building) several weeks before the charrette. And the approval process for this project -- covered by most local papers -- was also underway many months before, as well (I believe as early as January, 2005).

Even if the Tower was somehow "exempt" from the charrette, does that mean it wasn't on the minds of at least a few people? Certainly, I considered it, and others mentioned it at my table. Couldn't its plans have affected input during the charrette?

Now, I think you can say it is exempt from (or not included in) the yet-unfinished master plan that was a product of the charrette. But, getting back to the fairness issue, that is as it should be. If the project's approval was already underway before the charrette, why should it be subject to rules and a plan generated after the fact?

"Because some people don't like it" is not a sufficient answer.

When you walk through the garden...

Life imitates art, kinda: Someone broke into The Wire's suburban and currently empty soundstage over the weekend.

A tip of the hat to Steve Fine for sending the link.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Just let me state for the record...

Did you watch/attend the State of the County address last night? If so, what did you think?

In case you couldn't tell by my opening questions, I don't really have much to say about it. I thought it was a good speech. It touched on the new county executive's major issues -- education, the environment, public health and technology improvements -- included some news about a large corporation relocating to our county and generally seemed like a good first go for Ken Ulman, who as he mentioned a couple times last night, has only been in office 77 days.

If I had to single out a few things worthy of mention, I'd start with his commitment to innovation in government, which came at the end during the promises portion.

But I can also promise we are going to take some chances.

I have instructed our team to try new things---that bold, innovative ideas have a place in government and a home in Howard County.

But I ask that you work with us…that you send along your ideas…that citizens continue to be involved.
Moreover, his very detailed description of efforts to bring the county's technology infrastructure into the current century was both frightening and reassuring. We've lagged a bit on this front, and Ulman made clear that his team will have us caught up in short order.

His discussion of the environment, too, was welcome, particularly this line, which was music to my Herman-Daly-educated ears: "We must break down the false dichotomy between the environment and the economy."

I also thought he did a good job describing the budget constraints we're facing, especially the new federal accounting standards for retiree health benefits. And the personal stories he told about registering his daughter for summer camp and the lack of parking at the library were nice touches. (Did you know 95 percent of county residents have a library card?)

I guess the one incongruity I noticed were the sections dealing with Howard's business climate. Because the same speech was delivered to the Chamber of Commerce and the general public (a first), the business stuff seemed a little lengthy and somewhat out of place. Maybe that's just my perspective as a resident, though. I'm sure this was the part the chamber folks were most interested in.

On the whole, I'd give it a "pretty good" with room for improvement next year. His coverage of issues was excellent, but -- and this is just my personal preference when listening to speeches -- he could definitely use more highfalutin rhetoric. I like me some smart talking.

But that's just me; what about you?

The Sun's story is here. Full text of the speech is available here, and you can download the audio of it from the county's website.

What? No video? Oh, well. I'm sure you can catch a replay on Gtv sometime this week.

I fear I'll do some damage one fine day...

The ongoing battle over the Plaza Tower may shift venues, from the hearing room to the council chambers.

After County Executive Ken Ulman mentioned the issue in his State of the County speech yesterday, the Sun today reports that absent a compromise in the near future, the county council will likely take action.

...County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, has submitted two proposed zoning changes that would limit the height of any Town Center building to no more than 150 feet - equaling 14 or 15 stories - and change the county's grandfathering provisions to allow the height limit to retroactively cover the tower.

A group of four citizens opposed to the height of the tower is appealing county approvals for the 275-foot high-rise, although the builder, WCI Communities Inc., has all three building permits it needs to start construction.

"I'm actively engaged in discussions with all parties," Ulman said, and "I'm hopeful all parties will come together and compromise."

...Sigaty said she, too, would like to see an agreement, but added that her zoning proposals also serve a purpose. "This allows the public process to go forward," she said.

...The first of Sigaty's proposals would impose an interim 150-foot height limit, preventing new high-rise towers until a complete plan for redeveloping central Columbia is adopted. The second measure, according to Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, would apply the height limit to any proposed building under appeal.
Reactive policies aimed at a single, specific issue (e.g., the tower) often suffer from myriad problems. Usually, the law of unintended consequences steps in to screw things up, but I don't see this being the case with Sigaty's proposals.

Rather, the situation seems similar -- in some ways -- to the Wal-Mart health care bill passed by the General Assembly last year but ultimately killed by the courts. Singling out a specific project or entity and making it adhere to a separate set of rules, I think, is simply unfair. Concerns about this "sending the wrong message" are entirely justified.

That said and even though I don't support such limits, I'm glad to see the height limit proposal is only designed to be a interim measure until the final Town Center master plan is approved. My hope is that such restrictions are ultimately left out of the master plan, as deciding on strict building heights (and density limits, for that matter) now fails to allow any flexibility in the future.

With these two issues in particular, context matters. And as good as we may think we are at envisioning the Town Center of Tomorrow today, things are going to change dramatically in the next 30 years. Restricting future generations' ability to respond to these changes, like laws targeted at a specific project, strikes me as unfair.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You don't know the shape I'm in...

In case you missed it earlier today, Ken Ulman's second presentation of his first State of the County address is tonight at 7 pm at the county office complex. It's free and open to the public.

If trekking up (over, out, down) to Ellicott City isn't in the cards for you tonight, the speech will also air live on Gtv, which is channel 70 on Comcast. Unlike with the State of the Union, you'll have to come up with your own drinking game rules for this one. Just remember, it's only Tuesday. Full recap tomorrow.

In other news, Bill Santos has dug up yet another interesting story from Columbia's past. This one is about planning for a new downtown... in 1987.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Cause now I'm going in the right direction...

County Executive Ken Ulman today signaled his desire to make the environment a major focus of his new administration. At the Howard County Conservancy's Gudelsky Environmental Center, he signed an Executive Order establishing a commission on the environment and sustainability, as well as the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. In his statement, he made clear that he wants Howard County to become a leader in sustainability, with the new commission created specifically to recommend policies and programs to achieve this goal. Being the first county leader to sign the mayors agreement is certainly a step in the right direction.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Thursday Round Up...


How 'bout a Round Up?

As a working stiff, does it bother you that the State of the County address is always given during the day? Be bothered no more. Keeping his campaign pledge to help the working folk, County Executive Ken Ulman this year will deliver the speech twice in the same day (Tuesday, February 20). First at the traditional venue, a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, at 11 a.m., and second for the public at the county office building at 7 p.m. Although the early show will cost you, I hear the late one, which is free, gets kind of "blue," so you might not want to bring the little ones (joke!).


Speaking of things to do, Hometown Columbia would like to invite you to an informal discussion about the future of Columbia. It's this Sunday, February 18, from 3 to 5:30 p.m. at Trapeze in Maple Lawn.


Are you a distracted driver? I think at some point we all are, well, except for my college Zen Buddhism professor who claimed he hadn't listened to his car radio in over 25 years and believed this was the reason he also hadn't received a speeding ticket during that whole time. I got a speeding ticket driving through Idaho (no, you da ho) last summer and it wasn't because I was distracted. It was because I was speeding, but that's beside the point (or is it?).

Anyway, there are several bills before the General Assembly to address the problem of distracted driving, which includes all manner of things you shouldn't be doing while piloting a 2-ton hunk of metal and plastic down the byways of our fair state. One such bill -- designed to be a compromise both sides of the debate can live with -- was proposed by one of Elkridge's delegates, James Malone.

His bill would make distracted driving a ticketable offense only if the distracted driver is involved in an accident. This provision allays fears held by many -- including me and Patuxent Publishing -- that by making distracted driving illegal, police will have way too much leeway in who they pull over. Just because you're drinking a soda while driving doesn't necessarily mean you're endangering your fellow drivers.

That said, I think I agree with the Flier's editorial that distracted driving should be a secondary offense that police can issue citations for in connection to other offenses (like speeding).


Remember how Ulman said he was going to assign reading homework for his new agency heads? Well, here's (.pdf) something county officials should read. It's a report by the Center for Housing Policy entitled Increasing the Availability of Affordable Homes: A Handbook of High-Impact State and Local Solutions. Full of case studies and models from communities around the country, the handbook is a great introduction to some of the most current and leading edge affordable housing policies from around the country. The report divides housing strategies into six broad categories:

  • Expand the Availability of Sites for the Development of Affordable Homes
  • Reduce Red Tape and Other Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Homes
  • Harness the Power of Strong Housing Markets
  • Generate Additional Capital for Affordable Homes
  • Preserve and Recycle Resources for Affordable Homes
  • Empower Residents to Purchase and Retain Market-Rate Homes
I hope to write more about this soon, but you know how these vague hopes usually work out. Anyway, if you're a county official and you're reading this blog, get back to work, but be sure to send this up the line first.


Finally, the charrette. The master planning process for Town Center has taken more than its share of hits over the last year and a half. But despite all it's bad press and the missteps along the way, I'm beginning to think it was really a fantastic thing and its importance just seems to be growing. Case in point, the letters to the editor in this week's Flier.

It seems the charrette was just the beginning of a long-term discussion about Columbia's future that's really starting to flourish. More people, more voices, more dialogue, these are all good things. Eventually, of course, we'll have to make the messy decisions, but at least we'll know that everyone had a chance to speak their minds.

OK, I'm done.

YEE to the HAW!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Midday Update!

I knew I never should have told my boss about this blog.

Although I've spent most of the morning dutifully working on "work stuff," I'm ready to call it quits for the day and spend more time sledding with the neighborhood kids.

OK, so I haven't spent the entire morning working. I did manage to find a few minutes to clear the driveway of heavy, wet slop. And, of course, I got a few turns in with the snowboard while the "sneet" was still fresh early this morning.

And, I simply had to walk up to the "main" roads to check their conditions.

But these sojourns were all brief and largely didn't affect my productivity. After a quick online staff meeting later this hour, however, the time spent on distractions will surely increase. If that means I have to burn a few hours of leave time, so be it. Snow's a rare thing around here, best to not let it go to waste.

Anyway, in terms of updates, as you can see the roads in Oakland Mills don't look bad, but I heard from someone that US 29 south was (is?) closed near Broken Land Parkway. Can anyone else confirm this?

Also, precipitation has stopped and temperatures will start dropping soon. It's going to get cold, probably cold enough to make ice a real concern. Salt stops working when the mercury gets below the mid-20s, and with forecasts calling for lower teens tonight, conditions tomorrow morning could be just as bad as this morning.

All for now. Maybe more pictures later.

Wednesday Round Up: Morning Edition!

I'm not ready to offer my final recap on the storm and Weatherman Accountability. There is still a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of hope for some left over slop to come through, which probably won't much change the final tally (about 3" - 3.5" of snow/sleet or sneet) but might be fun to see. However, given the overall predominance of sleet last night, the forecasters with higher snow/sleet accumulations (mainly the Baltimore stations and CapitalWeather.com) would seem to be the winners. Final assessment later (maybe tomorrow).

Remember, you can check the status of county roads and plows online.

Anyway, just a few quick items before I dive head first into work that I get paid to do.

Still no decision on the Tower. Part of the case is now before a judge and it just keeps dragging on.

Planning director to stick around. I'm actually kind of surprised by this, given the amount of grief she's taken over the last several years.

New senior tax bill proposed.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Weatherman Accountability...

I hope this post finds everyone safe and warm at home. It's messy out there, and getting messier, so it's best to stay in.

Rather than go on (and on) about the dynamics of this storm (my wife and co-workers are already bored with my long-winded meteorology discussions), I'll cut right to the chase. There's enough snow and sleet to put my sled (and snowboard?) to use for at least a couple hours, and that's clearly what I'd like to be doing more than writing.

Although I'll run-down all the local forecasts, it's really not necessary. Most stations are calling for the same thing: 1" - 2" of snow, then sleet, then ice overnight (possibly changing to plain rain at some point). There's going to be a lot of moisture with this storm, and if we stay below freezing at the surface, we could have a crippling ice storm.

As always, the forecast information was taken during the 11 pm newscasts last night, the best and last call before the storm actually hit.

Washington, DC Stations:

  • WUSA-TV (Channel 9, Topper Shutt and company): 1" - 2" of snow, then sleet/freezing rain

  • WRC (Channel 4, Bob Ryan and the gang): 2" - 4" then sleet, which is a little higher than others

  • WJLA (Channel 7, Doug Hill and friends): Trace - 2", sleet, freezing rain (no graphic)
  • Fox Channel 5 (Sue Palka): 1" - 2" snow, then ice and all rain by Wednesday morning (no graphic)
  • CapitalWeather.com: 1" - 2"/2" -4", sleet, freezing rain

Baltimore Stations:

  • WJZ (Channel 13, Bob Turk and Marty Bass): 1" - 2"/2" - 5", up to 1/2" of ice

  • WBAL (Channel 11, Tommy T.): 2" - 3", then ice and finally rain

  • WMAR (Channel 2, Norm Lewis): Mostly ice -- he didn't mention any snowfall amounts (no graphic)
  • WBFF (Channel 45, ?): "Major Ice Storm," 1" - 3" snow, then lotsa ice (no graphic)
National Forecast Outlets:
  • National Weather Service: 1" snow, 1/2" ice, possibly plain rain on Wednesday
  • Accuweather: 2" - 4", then sleet, then 1" of ice (wow!)
  • The Weather Channel: 1" - 2", then ice and plain rain tonight and tomorrow
As you can see, there is little variability in the forecasts. A few stations went marginally higher with their snow predictions, while only a few others ventured to give specific ice accumulations. At this point, it looks like either they will all be right or they will all be wrong, though we may be able to parse things enough to declare a winner.

Right now, on the Hayduke Weather Terrace, we have 1" of snow and sleet falling lightly. Feel free to share any weather updates in the comments.

New local blog!

Hometown Columbia: "The Next Generation Speaks about Our 'New American City'"

It's geared to Columbians born between 1961 and 1981 and aims to serve as clearinghouse for perspectives on our future from this generation. I'm certainly looking forward to reading more and, most importantly, adding more voices to the discussion.

Go check it out!


Got too much stuff in your house (Yes!) or life (Not yet!)?

Here's a column by my uncle about his quixotic quest to cut through the clutter and how my father managed accomplished it with only minimal pain.

Monday, February 12, 2007

A little help?

Pay no attention to the snow that may be falling at your house this evening. It will amount to little. The "real" storm moves in later tonight and tomorrow and what it'll bring, nobody seems to know.

It is with a heavy heart that I bring back Weatherman Accountability -- a feature that's meant to gauge our local meteorologists' abilities to predict snowfall accumulations more so than where the various dividing lines between snow, sleet, ice and plain rain will set up. Nevertheless, we're still under a prematurely-issued Winter Storm Watch and it's clear that moisture and cold(ish) air will be around for the next 36 hours; thus, some type of accountability is in order.

Of course, snow geeks like myself have spent the better part of the last week salivating over a storm that kept getting better on the computer models, right up until yesterday when it all went south (or, more accurately, north). Rather than yardstick-worthy accumulations, we'll be lucky if we see any snow at all mixed in with our various assortment of frozen and non-frozen precipitation types.

But enough complaining -- there'll be plenty of time for that -- for now I have a request. I'll be trying my best to get the 11 pm forecasts from our local TV stations (both Baltimore and DC), but I'm not sure if I'll be able to watch them all (despite my supreme remote control toggling ability). After a few stints of this feature last year, I found that more than a few stations use forecasts generated by various national outlets (The Weather Channel, Accuweather, WeatherBug) on their websites.

But these are no good. I want forecasts straight from the horse's mouth. So, if you're watching your Live, Local, Late Breaking news tonight and happen to catch the weather segment, which will undoubtedly be the first thing on, please post whatever accumulation totals they mention for Howard County in the comments of this post. Information on the rest of the state is also appreciated. Since the guys at CapitalWeather.com do a good job collecting data from the DC TV stations, forecasts from Baltimore weatherpeople are more important.

Thanks... and pray for snow (or at least the serenity to accept whatever muck comes our way)!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Weekly planning...

If you're looking for information on something that might make me really happy or really sad come Tuesday, you could do no worse than reading CapitalWeather.com. The source isn't bad, either, but it lacks, uh, personality.

Worth the price of admission...

A meeting tomorrow night promises way more fun than should be allowed on a Monday. The Howard County Citizens Association and Howard County Tomorrow are hosting a joint discussion open to all comers on the future of Town Center.

Because I love it, here's the graphic advertising the event:

The meeting starts at 7:30 pm, though HCCA has a few items of business to take care of before we can get on with the discussion. It will be held at the Hawthorn Center, 6175 Sunny Spring, in Hickory Ridge.

See you there!

Whaddya think?

Overheard on another local blog:

When you make accusations, you should at least have the decency to let people know who you are. [Anonymous commenting] is a very cowardly approach. I do believe you have a right to your opinions and I also believe strongly that you have the right to express them, but to do it without revealing yourselves is the height of poor form.
Me: Whenever I think about ways to improve discussions on my blog, anonymity is a central issue. In it's favor is my belief that the ideas matter much more than who said them. And when we weigh the value of an idea, it's source can affect our judgment. One of the reasons I remained anonymous as Hayduke for so long was that I didn't want other things about me (age, employment, other community activities) to influence others' assessments of my thoughts; I wanted my ideas to stand on their own, without my own personal baggage dragging them down (or, charitably, raising them up).

On the other hand, with anonymity comes a clear lack of accountability. This is usually not a concern, as most commenters -- anonymous or not -- conduct themselves with civility and respect for others -- as I think has been the case in the discussion that prompted the above comment. It is only on the rare occasions when comments become vile, insulting or simply unseemly that anonymity becomes a problem.

Regardless of where you stand on the anonymity continuum, I think you need to be consistent with your position and policing, regardless of the content of particular comments. Condemning those you disagree with while letting vile words from someone on your side slide, strikes me as transparent ploy to tilt the discussion in your favor.

So, what say you?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

How Maryland am I?

How Maryland Are You?
Your Result: You're 100% Maryland

You have erected a shrine to Ray Lewis in your living room, complete with a "BELIVE 'HON" bumper sticker on your car. You can name every county in the state and refer to Howard County as "Ho Co." The second you step over the stae line, you feel weird, and need a Natty Bo.

You're 80% Maryland
You're 60% Maryland
You're 40% Maryland
You're 20% Maryland
How Maryland Are You?

Was there ever any doubt?

Friday, February 09, 2007

If you're looking for action...

Tales of Two Cities, home of Wordbones, is the place to be. In particular, this post seems to have generated a heated discussion.

These Rockports were meant for walking...

Although the bus is nice and warm, walking home from work is definitely faster. Yesterday's commute totaled 40 minutes, while today's -- all on foot -- was less than 20.

Results may vary.

A question...

Do you support height limits in Town Center? Why or why not?

And if you do, what's the maximum height you would allow?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Making lemonade...

I woke up to a plate full of lemons this morning.

The always too-early alarm wasn't much of a problem, and neither was the malfunctioning beard trimmer. I didn't really mind the cold either.

But things started to go downhill when I remembered that Abbzug's car was parked behind mine in the driveway. Normally, this isn't problem, because we usually leave around the same time. This morning, however, I had planned to get an early start and her car stood in my way.

No problem, right? I can just move it to the street. Unfortunately, the street was pretty packed with cars and the closest open spot was a long way from our house. Just a minor inconvenience, though.

The major inconvenience didn't become evident until I tried to start her car ... to no avail. After much pushing (now the cold was bothering me), I managed to create enough space to maneuver my car around hers, without resorting to the "garden route." With Abbzug's Subaru stranded in our driveway, she drove me to work and returned home to wait for the tow truck.

As I walked up the stairs -- my normal choice, though on this morning the large crowd in the lobby indicated that our building's elevator "problems" were still not resolved (they get stuck ... a lot) -- I decided today would be a good day to have my first first-hand experience with Howard Transit. I would ride the bus home.

The final verdict: Not bad.

I walked out of the American City building at 4:50 pm in order to catch the 5 pm Brown A bus back to Oakland Mills. The county's main bus hub is at the Mall, next to Sears. I walked up the hill just in time to see my bus pull into the already-crowded loading area (all the buses meet up at the Mall at the top of every hour).

There were plenty of folks waiting, loading or unloading -- normal bus stop activity. I paid my $1.50 fare and hopped right onto my bus -- and out of the cold -- with about seven other riders, most of whom were younger (late teens, early 20s) and African American.

After waiting a couple of minutes (until exactly 5 pm), we, like the numerous other green buses, were off. We rode stop-less on Little Patuxent Parkway/Rt. 175/Rouse Parkway to Thunder Hill Road, where we made a left to go to the Columbia Medical Plan campus. This stop is kind of out of the way (we had to cross back over 175 immediately after it) and no one got off or on, leading me to conclude that it is a pointless stop.

A few passengers disembarked at the village center before we arrived at my stop near Kilimanjaro Road. I got off and walked the rest of the way home (less than half of a mile away).

In all, the trip took about 40 minutes door-to-door, split evenly between walking and riding. Looking back, it probably would have taken less time (and cost less) for me to just walk home from the office (about 1.5 miles), but it wouldn't have been quite as comfortable.

I wish I could say I gained some significant insight about transit, but I didn't. It was a bus. It took me where I needed to go in a reasonable amount of time and with few inconveniences, which, today, is more than I can say for the automobile.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wednesday Round Up: Snow Day!

Though it wasn't a snow day for me, you or any other non-teaching adult, it was still nice to wake up to a blanket of sparkling fluffy snow, wasn't it?

It seems with age comes a growing disdain for snow, but nothing about last night's "dumping" should warrant any complaining from the geezers. The roads were fine by rush hour, driveways and cars could be cleared with ease (I used the same broom for both), and by afternoon, much of it had disappeared under the bright (if not warm) sun.

Now I know many of you are probably hankering for a Weatherman Accountability recap. Unfortunately, like the few other extended bouts of flurries we've had this winter, there were little variations in forecasts among the local "mets" -- all basically got it right (they called for 1 – 2 inches and we got 1 – 2 inches).

Before I can bring the full Weatherman Accountability feature out of retirement, we need to start hearing about a "real" storm, at least more than 3 or 4 inches. For now, I'll just link to this, knock on wood, cross my fingers and rub a (tofu) rabbit's foot.

Even though last night's snow didn't deliver impressive accumulations, it was impressive for another reason – extremely low moisture content (exciting!). You've surely heard of a dry heat; well, last night was a dry snow, something much more common in places like Montana, home of the Cold Smoke, than in the Mid-Atlantic (right, Ali?).

According to a National Weather Service employee's snow report for Columbia, the flakes that fell had a snow to water ratio of 45:1, meaning it would take 45 inches of melted snow would create one inch of water (!). The normal ratio for our area is around 10:1 or 12:1 -- one foot of melted snow equals one inch of water -- and anything above 20:1 is rare.

Thanks for the incredibly dry and easy to mange snow are due to low temperatures – around 15 degrees F at the surface and colder in the atmosphere above – and the fact that the storm arrived from the west (over land) instead of from the south, where it can draw moisture and upper level warmth from the ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

But enough with the meteorology, let's move on to the important stuff.

The senior tax task force has released its recommendations to make the law more palatable to more people. Highlights include lowering the income ceiling (from $75,000 to around $55,000) and implementing a limit on assets at $200,000, not including the house or qualified retirement plans.

Typo of the Day. From a story on the now-defunct, Centennial Gardens affordable housing project: "[T]he development would include 232 one-bedroom units, 30 two-bedroom apartments and six three-bedroom units." 268 units? No wonder the community protested.

Base realignment could add to Howard's affordable housing woes. That's from the Examiner. Here's my attempt at being clever with this issue from the early days of the blog. Not much has changed.

Alcohol in elementary schools?!? Oh, hand sanitizers. Still, you have to watch how much of that stuff you're using – it dries out your hands, not what you want during these cold, dry times.

That's it for now. More tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

We could do worse...

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Howard County's new head honcho for health.

Quote of the Day II...

“We are kind of staffed up for the era when there was lots of wide open space.” -- Marsha McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

This quote is actually relevant to the county government as a whole and not just the planning department. We have a government built for the county of 20 years ago, not the county of today. While the community has grown and prospered, our government has failed to keep pace with the changes, and we're only now starting to see the effects of this failure.

Jim Robey had a completely different style of government than Ken Ulman (and, if he had won, Chris Merdon). Whereas Ulman promises a proactive government, Robey largely led by responding and managing. There's nothing inherently wrong or right about either style, but now that citizens are asking more of government, we're seeing starkly the changes that need to be made. For instance, the housing department:

The department lacks accountability, according to a report released by a subcommittee of Ulman’s transition team tasked with reviewing the department.

“Transparency and communication with citizens are essential to maintain trust in the department,” the report states.

The department also lacks clear goals, and the county doesn’t have a comprehensive housing plan, according to the report.

This plan would lay out all housing programs and specific goals, said subcommittee chairman C. Vernon Gray, who also serves as the head of the Human Rights Office.

(Personal aside: I was doing some research a while back about Howard County housing programs and sent at least a few e-mails to housing officials with questions I had. I heard no responses and never could put together a full list of housing programs.)

The report of the transition team is full of similar suggestions for other agencies. Changing the structure of government to meet our growing needs and demands is going to be difficult and (probably) costly. Are we willing to support it?

Quote of the Day...

“Prison and the juvenile system, they don’t teach you how to be a man. They teach you how to keep reoffending.” -- Delcarlos Johnnie Jacobs, 22.

Jacobs -- who "has been incarcerated for much of his life" and whose father is currently incarcerated -- was sentenced yesterday to 35 years in prison for myriad charges stemming from an incident with the police SWAT team. From the Examiner:

Police allege that Jacobs provoked the SWAT team to fire at him 29 times at 11:30 p.m. Feb. 1, 2006, by raising a rifle he was holding at the officers and firing it — a claim Jacobs has repeatedly denied.

The officers were at his Columbia home to serve a warrant for burglary, they said.

Jacobs’ attorneys said the officers’ stories are unbelievable because no bullet nor shell from Jacobs’ gun was found.

Regardless of whether he actually fired the gun, resisting arrest with a weapon in hand was certainly not the best way to handle the situation.

Is his above statement relevant to how conducted himself when confronted by police, how he got in that predicament in the first place (burglary), or both?

Or, did he just use his courtroom soapbox to take another shot at the justice system?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Here's a novel approach...

Rather than jump right off the deep end with an antagonistic opinion about this story, I'm going to ask a few questions first. My hope is that some of the locals -- or perhaps someone who knows what the locals are thinking -- can offer greater insight into the situation than was afforded by the Sun yesterday.

Plans for two multiunit duplex developments in Elkridge for moderate-income families have been shelved, at least for now, because of vigorous public opposition.

...John Liparini, president and chief executive officer of Brantly, abandoned the two projects after numerous residents objected and County Councilwoman Courtney Watson vowed legislation to prohibit additional duplexes in much of Elkridge, although she acknowledged the bill probably could not be applied retroactively to affect Brantly's plans.

"It's not worth it to me or my company," Liparini said during a community meeting that was attended by about 100 people.

Many of those people were not residents adjacent to the sites of the proposed developments, and Liparini said he wishes to meet with them before deciding how to develop the properties.

The parcels affected are both zoned R-12, which is single-family residential lots of 12,000 square feet. The county, however, has permitted duplexes with approval of a conditional-use permit.

The Brantly Development Group was seeking permits to construct 20 duplex units on 7.22 acres on Old Washington Road near the Norbel School and eight duplexes on 1.5 acres, also on Old Washington Road.

The structures would be designed to appear as single-family homes to blend in with the neighborhood, Liparini said, but each unit would be about half the size of a traditional home.
OK, first, the details. When the story says "20 duplex units" does it mean 20 housing units or 20 duplexes, meaning 40 units? This is a pretty substantial difference for many obvious reasons, but the main reason I ask is for a better understanding of the actual density of these developments.

If it's 20 units, then the density would be 2.77 units/acre, leaving a maximum possible lot size of 15,726 square feet, well above the 12,000 square feet minimum required by R-12 zoning. However, this leaves out mandatory set asides -- open space, roads, rights-of-way, etc. -- that will surely reduce lot sizes. Any guidance on how much land is non-developable (and not relevant to density calculations) on either of the contested properties is also appreciated.

Next, the details of the opposition. Some in the story make reference to the fact that moderately-priced housing will reduce the value of their properties. This may or may not be true and it's not usually an argument I buy into, but I'll listen.

The vague notion of incompatibility is another source of objection.

Watson, elected to her first term on the council in November, said, "Two-family dwellings is not compatible with Elkridge. ... We don't want noncompatible development."

She said her legislation would ban duplexes on property zoned R-12, and she urged the residents to press the other council members for support. "You don't have to convince me," Watson said. "It's the other council members."

Calvin Ball, the council chairman, attended the meeting and indicated his support of the legislation.

Valerie McGuire, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, said the duplexes were not acceptable. "People are upset because you're suddenly placing these duplexes in the middle of these residential homes. ... The opposition was unanimous, and I think they heard that loud and clear."

(Notice the differentiation between "duplexes" and "residential homes.")

In this case, how are duplexes noncompatible with Elkridge (or even this specific area of Elkridge)? Are we talking about aesthetics, because it sounds like they'll look just like single family homes? Infrastructure?

I mean, there are already condos, apartments, townhouses and even mobile homes in Elkridge. So, why the special concern for duplexes? Is it all a function of the location of this specific project?

You can probably tell which way I'm leaning on this development, but I'm honestly looking for more information before I shoot off at the mouth.

That said, I think banning duplexes from R-12 zoning -- like most reactionary policies -- is a fantastically horrible idea.

Friday, February 02, 2007

T.G.I. Round Up...

I know it’s been a slow couple weeks around here (and all local blogs, for that matter), and I apologize for the lack of salaciousness or even substance. I have no excuse – really, I don’t, so I won’t even try.

While my subconscious stares disappointedly at itself in the mirror, I’ll try to correct some of the slowness with an action-packed, T.G.I.F. Round Up, the guaranteed blogging cure for all that ails (not really). And, rather than burying the juicy stuff, I’ll put it right up front.

Lines are being drawn. In response to the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown, a new group has formed under the banner “Bring Back the Vision.” With 20-some members, BBV is pushing for a more urban, city-like Town Center and sees the fight against the Plaza tower and master plan as misguided. From the Flier:

Michael Davis says he moved to Columbia 25 years ago because its founders claimed it would become a new kind of city.

Instead, he has watched Columbia become a new kind of suburb, he said, adding that, in doing so, the planned community has not achieved some of its promised vitality, energy and excitement.

"The early people who moved to Columbia -- they all bought into the idea of a new city, not a new suburbia," said Davis, a Wilde Lake resident who has a law practice in Town Center.

Needless to say, CCD is critical of BBV’s efforts:
[Lloyd] Knowles said he is suspicious that Bring Back the Vision is working with the Plaza's developer in an effort counter criticism of the high-rise, adding that WCI officials hired public relations consultant Jean Moon, a longtime Columbia resident, to handle publicity for the building.

In an e-mailed response asking for comment on Bring Back the Vision, Knowles called Moon a good friend, adding that, "she obviously has a substantial personal following. WCI made a good choice. ... I suppose some of her job is to garner support from the community to the WCI cause."

Lincoln and Davis said the group has no connection to WCI, adding that they are motivated to act solely as residents who want Columbia to flourish. Moon also said that she and WCI officials played no role in the group's formation.
Now, I know the papers try to make situations seem as controversial as possible (so I’m taking Knowles statement with a grain of salt) but what does it say about our current dialogue when the default tactic is connecting the other side to developers?

Speaking of Town Center and developers, Diane Brown has a great column in this week’s Flier about an event discussing Jim Rouse last Sunday. The best bit, by far, is the end:
Someone asked Kellner, "What would Jim Rouse do?" regarding the proposed changes in Columbia's downtown, including a 22-story condo building. She recalled that he wanted the advice and opinions of the work group he engaged, but that group was not planning the city.

Kellner noted that The Rouse Co. started Columbia with a blank slate of 14,000 acres of land and that its executives did not have the active, interested opinions of today.

Among people I know, one longtime Columbian says he hopes the 22-story Plaza Residences will one day be the shortest building downtown. A new resident told me that 22 stories is too high.
I don’t believe length of stay in Columbia has any effect on the validity of one’s views about Town Center, but Brown’s anecdote (which proves little) is nonetheless interesting.

OK, enough with the bulky, should-have-been-their-own-posts items in this Round Up. Let’s clean it up as succinctly as possible, shall we?

A decent compromise on the idea of having planning department employees attend pre-submission meetings between developers and the community. Previous discussion here.

Remember Centennial Gardens, the proposed affordable housing complex in Ellicott City? Well, that’s all it is, a memory.

Here’s a novel thought: Let kids be kids. Actually, nature deficit disorder isn’t just a problem for kids. We should all try to spend a little time playing outside each day.

Kids being adults: Student board of education member likely to receive voting rights.

Where are you watching the Super Bowl? Not at a bar, apparently. (I’m not.)

The senior tax credit: Some people for it, some against. Discuss.