29 August 2007

Waging a War of Wages

It seems that Alex Hekimian (and for the uninitiated, that’s “eye-key-me-an”), a long time Oakland Mills resident and current President of the Alliance for a Better Columbia (ABC) is upset about Columbia Association senior staff salaries. His concern made it into both the Baltimore Examiner and Baltimore Sun newspapers today.

Sara Michaels from the Baltimore Examiner reports:

Five of the seven top Columbia Association officers are pulling in six-figure salaries, and one residents group is questioning how salaries and bonuses are rewarded.

“We don’t think money is being spent wisely,” said Alex Hekimian, head of the watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, who received the compensation data from the CA and provided it to The Examiner.

[C]A doesn’t make these compensation decisions in a vacuum,” CA spokesman Steve Sattler said. The organization relies on consultants to determine average wages. A salary study conducted six years ago, which did not include benefits, showed the salaries were too low, he said. Another study of Brown’s compensation in 2006 showed her pay was also low, and in April she was given a $7,000 raise.

CA is planning another salary study, which will include salary and benefits. However, Hekimian rejected the idea for a salary study, saying it’s a “way to justify raising salaries higher.”

The wages should be compared with state and county government employees, Hekimian said, since the homeowners association is quasi-governmental.

Simlarly, Larry Carson of the Baltimore Sun reports:

The Columbia Association's top officials got hefty cash bonuses on top of
salaries that are higher than those of most county and state employees, and a
local watchdog group wants to know why.

Alex Hekimian, president of the Alliance for a Better Columbia and a longtime gadfly and critic of association management, said the salaries are far too high. "They're into
bonuses," Hekimian said. "We'd like to find out why."

He said county officials typically make less than Columbia Association officers, who manage an annual budget of about $50 million, compared with the county's $1.2 billion spending plan.

"It just seems out of line because of the way CA operates," Hekimian said. "This is a homeowners association."
Other than Mr. Hekimian’s overly confrontational tone (“They’re into bonuses, we’d like to find out why.”), I think his assertion that CA is a homeowners association is exactly the reason why the pay at CA is different from traditional forms of government. Regardless of the quasi-governmental dogma put out by any organization, State and Federal courts have repeatedly held homeowners associations outside of government. The most recent example has been the Twin Rivers, New Jersey case (be warned, your constitutional rights may not apply).

What do the neighbors make?

Perhaps ABC’s press release was serendipitously ill timed. Also in the paper this morning was a story from the U.S. Census American Community Survey. Statistical estimates for 2006 puts Maryland as the richest state (as measured by a median income of $65,144) and Howard County as the richest County (median income of $94,260) in the richest state (overall, third richest in the nation, behind Fairfax and Loudoun Counties in Virginia). Given that the average income in the county is about to push five figures, the fact that some at CA have salaries in that range would not be surprising.

Looking at the whole picture

Let me say I agree in principle with ABC that CA staff should not be over compensated for the work they do. However, I believe one of the best tools available for determining appropriate compensation is comparable studies. As mentioned in both the Baltimore Examiner and Baltimore Sun, two studies have been performed in the recent past and one is currently ongoing. The most recent study of CA President compensation is available on line (scroll down to the last sentence on the page) and was performed by the Singer Group. This study, submitted in 2006, cites comparable salaries for other large homeowners associations (The Woodlands (TX), Reston (VA), Montgomery Village (MD), and Ocean Pines(MD)). The study also looked at salaries for not-for profit organizations in the $25-50M range and city manager positions in the region. All comparables showed that the CA President salary was either on par with or lower than others. It is also important to note that with respect to homeowners association presidents and city managers, all comparables cites (though in my opinion otherwise valid) were for resident populations much smaller than Columbia.

In my opinion, this study seems to better describe the comparables to the CA president than ABC’s simple statement that in terms of pay, quasi-government should equal government. Moreover, Mr. Hekimian’s statement

[H]ekimian rejected the idea for a salary study, saying it’s a “way to justify raising salaries higher.”

Allows for no other recourse for justification of salary other than what his organization “thinks” is appropriate. Indeed, if Mr. Hekimian rejects salary studies as a means to justify pay, I would like to see his organization provide data on homeowners associations that have linked their staff’s pay to surrounding government pay. I am not aware of any homeowner association that agrees with that philosophy. In the interim, the “just because” excuses for assailing the pay of staff is insufficient.

27 August 2007

A suggestion for the Wilde Lake Village Center

The front page story from the August 23, 2007 Columbia FlierMarket forces buffet Wilde Lake” has been bothering me. The Wilde Lake Village Board Chair Vince Marando is quoted extensively:

Vincent Marando wants a grocery store to open in the Wilde Lake Village Center as much as everyone else, he says.

But while several business owners are desperate for a new market to open as soon as possible, Marando, the chairman of the village board, thinks a new market should wait until the grocery store and retail picture in Columbia comes more into focus.

[W]e're trying to understand and speak to what we believe is best for the village," Marando said. "The situation is dire."

[M]arando said village officials and residents should wait until after September to decide how to proceed. Right now they have been very quiet, he said.

"We're all in agreement that the grocery store is still a priority," Marando said. "We are slowing down to advocate and agitate the process."

Marando said he plans to discuss the potential changes to retail in the region with residents at upcoming community meetings. The next meeting is on Sept. 4.

Now, I have known Vince for years and I have to think he has been misquoted in this article. Clearly, the sooner a supermarket is brought to the Wilde Lake Village Center, the better for the residents and retailers. But the arrival of a new grocer must be done with the realization of what is going on in downtown Columbia and the coming of Wegmans. It seems the first point was not brought across in the article, but the second was emphasized.

One suggestion I would like to make at this time is for the Wilde Lake Village Board to advocate for better signs pointing the way to the Wilde Lake Village Center. I did a quick survey of Columbia Village Centers and found numerous signs pointing the way to the Harpers Choice (Blue), Owen Brown (Green) and Oakland Mills (Red) Village Centers. Currently, there are no signs pointing the way to the Wilde Lake Village Center.

View Larger Map

I encourage all to zoom in, click on the placefinders, look at the pictures, and explore. If I have missed any other village center signs, please let me know (comment or email) and I will update the map.

If we can get a few of these signs for the Wilde Lake Village Center, we may be able to generate a bit more traffic at the center. It will also aid people trying to find the new supermarket when it does arrive.

Back Off

Mary Kay Sigaty, you are doing a good job. It is about time that it was said. Since being elected, I have seen you honor your campaign promises, but more importantly, serve your community. Beyond the fashionable fear campaign waged by some in the community, you have been a steady voice in neighborhood revitalization and demonstrated strong leadership during the brutal murders that occurred in Running Brook this spring. Thank you.

I say this because of an August, 26, 2007 article in the Baltimore Sun. This article (page 2) attempts to paint Mary Kay Sigaty as out of touch.

The councilwoman has been known to take two or three days to return phone calls, according to county officials who refused to be quoted, but who said it can be "frustrating" to attempt to contact her.

Even an issue of prime importance to her sometimes does not draw a return call. For example, Sigaty is preparing to introduce legislation next month to limit the height of buildings in Columbia -- an attempt to stop plans for a 23-story residential tower on the lakefront or any similar buildings.

Recently, a Sun reporter trying to speak to her about construction starting on the tower was not able to reach her despite sending two e-mails, leaving two messages at her council office and another message live with someone at Sigaty's home.
This article spurred the following comment from Freemarket:

I question how interested Mary Kay is in being a council member. I wonder if this issue has burnt out her interest in the political process.

I am not sure if Freemarket is just responding to the article or if he has first hand knowledge, but my experience with Mary Kay has been that she is a very dedicated Howard County Council member. I do not agree with her on every issue, but I believe her commitment to District 4 and the County as a whole is exemplary.

The article, written by Larry Carson, can only provide unnamed county government sources and Baltimore Sun staff as people that have not received a prompt reply from Mary Kay. So who is Mary Kay talking to? My guess would be the people that live in District 4.

22 August 2007

What the Columbia Association can do about Downtown Columbia…Right Now

Well, its been a little while since we have heard “Columbia Association” and “Downtown Columbia” in the same breath. The City Fair is over and construction has started on the Plaza. I believe what CA could do to improve downtown Right Now is to start working on rehabilitating the pavilion that used to house outdoor Clydes. In my opinion, the continued abandonment of this prominent downtown structure is insane.
For those of us that are old enough to remember, eating and drinking under the pavilion was a great summer activity. High above the lake, looking out on the trees and ducks swimming below, fried zucchini in hand; life was good. It was always fun. If there was a summer concert or a movie playing at the amphitheater, diners could enjoy the music, and because the seating was behind the speakers, could also enjoy conversation.

Currently, outdoor dining at Clydes are at a few tables in a corner, between the people tree and the Teachers Building. Don’t get me wrong, dining under the people tree is a great idea, but to sit at a table that has a view of a pavilion that has a view of the lake seems to be beyond irony.

Why are there not tables under the pavilion? It is my understanding that the Howard County Health Department shut down outdoor dining under the pavilion because…there are not enough bathrooms. Come to think of it, how did we evolve into the second largest city in Maryland, and not ever think of putting public restrooms in downtown?

Most other cities of comparable size have ample public facilities in their downtown area (and many smaller cities provide this basic service too). The County has been successful at maintaining bathrooms at most of the larger parks, why couldn’t Columbia Association provide similar service in downtown. They do maintain public bathrooms at Lake Elkhorn.
Currently the only accommodation in downtown is the uh, “portable” convenience. I am certain that putting in public restrooms is not cheap, either from a construction or maintenance aspect, but I believe it is the type of “amenity” that many people would appreciate.

So I ask the CA Board to start moving on this. Refurbish the pavilion (and the boat docks below), put in the bathrooms, and bring back the fried zucchini.

21 August 2007

One true, one not, both strange

The confluence of a rainy day and internet connectivity (via my Apple Mac Book Pro and lunch at Panera Bread) Have provided two interesting results. Up front, I will give a bit of each story; decide in your head which is factual and which is fiction:

When the affluent suburban community north of Atlanta won its independence in
2005 -- after complaining for years that its taxes subsidized poor communities
to the south -- it became Georgia's first new city since the 1950s. And rather
than set up a city hall, the city chose to outsource the bulk of the
administration to a private corporation.


Though the amulet had long been dismissed as urban legend, a mythical ideal of
zoning perfection handed down from city planner to city planner, LaMere became
convinced that not only was it real, but that it had been used to lay out the cities of Ur, Atlantis, and Inver Grove Heights, MN.

LaMere credited the amulet with the overnight renovation of the Monroe County Public Library, and the recent redesignation of a Southern Rochester area from "commercial" to "single-family residential use for detached and semi-detached structures." Many Rochester citizens believe the amulet is responsible for the fully stocked ocean aquarium that materialized in the city center Sunday, and the gleaming new Friendly's restaurant that rose serenely over the banks of the Genesee River late Monday afternoon.

The first story is most definitely real, and comes courtesy of an August 17, 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times (An experiment in government). It seems that a few unincorporated communities outside of Atlanta have finally become municipalities, but rather than start a completely new layer of government, they have contracted out most of their governmental—administrative services to…the Denver-based engineering firm CH2M-Hill Inc.

For 30 years, residents of Sandy Springs fought a Democratic-controlled
Legislature for cityhood, with legislators refusing to change a law that made it difficult for new cities to be formed. Republicans gained control of the Legislature in 2004 and changed the rules. When Sandy Springs held its referendum on cityhood, 94% of voters approved.

[W]hen the affluent suburban community north of Atlanta won its independence in 2005 -- after complaining for years that its taxes subsidized poor communities to the south -- it became Georgia's first new city since the 1950s. And rather than set up a city hall, the city chose to outsource the bulk of the administration to a private

[Y]et the movement's aim does not appear to be lowering taxes or unraveling bureaucracy. Despite their differences, the new cities all seem to share a desire for greater regulation, particularly when it comes to zoning.In Sandy Springs, a highly developed suburban area with 87,000 residents, this means regulating adult entertainment businesses and updating or replacing older commercial buildings. To the south, in Chattahoochee Hill Country, a less-developed area and home to fewer than 2,200, the focus is on preserving most of the land as rural, with the occasional hamlet.

With phenomenal growth around Atlanta, each city is concerned with who controls development and what gets built, said Douglas C. Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia."A lot of people who move in want to see new development," he said. "But everyone wants to be the last person in."

Sounds kind of familiar; a middle-aged unincorporated city pushing near 100,000 people, a pre-occupation with zoning, dissatisfaction with the county government…

Even if the movement of new local governments is successful in local terms, demographer Bachtel said, it could lead to a broader impasse across the region:"The jury is still out.

There are more people in the stewpot now, elbowing for more power. We might be headed toward an ungovernable area with all these little fiefdoms."

This has also had effects at the county government level:

The dramatic and rapid shift toward an all-city county has sent shock waves through county government.With potentially no unincorporated areas, county commissioners are, among other things, considering replacing the Sheriff's Department with a privately contracted jailer. And they are looking at replacing the seven county commissioners with a five-member panel.

Fulton County would continue to collect taxes and provide countywide services such as courts, health centers and senior services.

Could it happen here? I do not think so, but there may be some out there that think this is just what Howard County needs.

On to Fiction

Our second story comes from the August 25, 2005 (yes, it is two years old) edition of the on-line satire vehicle, The Onion (City Councilman Unearths Magical Zoning Amulet). In this fantastical story, one of the Rochester, NY city council members finds an amulet with mysterious zoning powers. Although not based in reality, it is a well written story in a “Harry Potter meets the Howard County Council” kind of way and provides some chuckles.

Although the Rochester City Zoning Board controls all decisions related to city planning, sources at City Hall say that, as long as LaMere's powerful zoning wizardry is performed for the good of the city, they "see no reason to deny him what seems to be his destiny."

"Two weeks ago, the biggest news in Rochester was our huge public garage sale," said William A. Johnson, Rochester's mayor. "Our city center was still a moribund tax burden with small businesses in big buildings and families moving to the suburbs in droves. Now, with a wave of his mighty amulet, Councilman LaMere can designate matter-of-right medium-density development, with limited offices for non-profit organizations, trade associations, and professionals permitted as a special exception requiring approval of the RCZA."

Despite the potential improvements to Rochester's civic landscape, some residents remain wary of LaMere's apparent bureaucratic invincibility.

"It's wonderful that someone's finally doing something to revitalize this town, even if it is someone who can commune with church gargoyles," said local baker Wendy Kittner, whose business was mystically placed on the National Register Of Historic Places last week despite being housed in a building erected in 1981. "He frightens me, and my concern is that if I defy him, I may be turned to stone."
I came across the zoning amulet via the Cyburbia website and their Planning Site of the Day/Humor page. There are several Onion links that poke fun at the world of planning and zoning (fair warning, some mature content).

20 August 2007

Required Reading

It has been a while since my last post. It is not for lack of desire, I have had a lot on my plate recently. One thing that I have had an enormous interest in has been the unfolding “Neighbor Manifesto” on the where blog. This five-part (parts 1-4 have been posted, tune in tomorrow for part 5) series is an amazing read. Take some time and read these; I believe they have something very important to say.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

08 August 2007

Developers: Welcome to Columbia

Sara Michael of the Baltimore Examiner has an article in the paper today about developers and their feelings about a design advisory board. As reported, some developers were open to the idea and others expressed doubt. In particular:

Scott Armiger, vice president of Orchard Development in Ellicott City, said the
free market should drive the building design, not an appointed panel.

“I think it should be left up to the developer,” he said, adding that the panel’s recommendations could drive up development costs. Developers conduct market studies and community meetings to ensure the development is good-looking and fits the neighborhood, Armiger said.

“I don’t think we would care to have someone else design a product for us,” he said, adding it could be an “unnecessary step that makes things more bureaucratic.”

For Mr. Armiger and those developers who believe design review is a bad idea, all I ask is that you take a look at the self-storage building adjacent to Snowden River Parkway. I do not think that any market studies or community meetings were held in conjunction with the design of this building. It is an eyesore.

I would also direct their attention to the corner of Governor Warfield Parkway and Twin Rivers Road (I really need to get some pictures of this). Here we have four townhouse developments, one on each corner. On the Wilde Lake side of Governor Warfield Parkway are the Bryant Square and Hollow Oaks townhouse communities. The exterior of the Hollow Oaks townhomes are tan brick with wood trim. The Bryant Square townhomes feature white stucco (although some have been converted to aluminum siding of various colors). On the Town Center side of Governor Warfield Parkway are the Whitney condos and the Governors Grant townhomes. Governors Grant is all red brick (at least from the road) and the Whitney is red brick with a tan/cream (ecru?) siding. The end result is a complete mish-mash of construction materials that don’t work well together. Taken separately, each development has its charm. Pushed together at one intersection, it is a monument to incompatibility. In my opinion, it is visual noise. These are two examples in which a design review board would have helped immensely (anyone else have examples?).

Moreover, as any resident of Columbia that wanted to build a deck or change the color of their front door will tell you, design review is nothing new to most of the property in Columbia. It’s called the Architectural Committee. Each Village has one. It is my opinion that design review would put us (residents and developers) all under the same tent. In fact, it may be worth while to look at the Architectural Control section of the Covenants (Article VII) from each Village for a starting point. The criteria for disapproval are actually quite good (Section 7.03, (a) through (i)):

Section 7.03. The Architectural Committee shall have the right to disapprove any plans and specifications submitted hereunder because of any of the following:

(a) the failure of such plans or specifications to comply with any of the Wilde Lake

(b) failure to include information in such plans and specifications as may have been reasonably requested;

(c) objection to the exterior design, appearance or materials of any proposed

(d) incompatibility of any proposed Structure or use with existing Structures or uses upon other Lots in the vicinity;

(e) objection to the location of any proposed Structure upon any Lot or with reference to other Lots in the vicinity;

(f) objection to the grading plan for any Lot;

(g) objection to the color scheme, finish, proportions, style of architecture, height, bulk or appropriateness of any proposed Structure;

(h) objection to parking areas proposed for any Lot on the grounds of
(i) incompatibility to proposed uses and Structures on such Lot or (ii) the insufficiency of the size of parking areas in relation to the proposed use of the Lot; or

(i) any other matter which, in the judgment of the Architectural Committee, would render the proposed Structure, Structures or uses inharmonious with the general plan of improvement of the Property or with Structures or uses located upon other Lots in the vicinity.

I should be clear about one point. I do not believe that the Columbia Village Architectural Committees should have their authority expanded beyond their current charge. As a former member of the Wilde Lake Architectural Committee and former chair of the Wilde Lake Resident Architectural Committee, I know firsthand that these committees already have an enormous amount of work to do. They do not need to have more put on their plate. I believe a County based Design Advisory Panel is the right way to go. However, I do believe the above cited portions of the Wilde Lake (and the other Villages wording are similar) Covenants are a good place to start when writing the Design Advisory Panel charter.

Mental Yoga

The downtown Columbia discussion has become almost as stagnant as the August air around here. The smog of “who can sue who” has obscured the ability for us to dream, to be bold thinkers, to realize our opportunities.

Early this morning, I stopped by the Cool Town Studios website and read a four paragraph post authored by Neil Takemoto. Here are the first two paragraphs:

You've been to those evening neighborhood meetings... lots of talk about resistance to change, addressing complaints, reaching out to government, fundraising, what this committee and that committee are doing... it feels more like a day job, it's not fun, there's contention in the air, and it often doesn't result in making a progressive impact in your neighborhood.

Perhaps the group should focus on content, like what kinds of buildings, shops,
restaurants and streets you'd like to see, backed up by the investors willing to capitalize it, and leave the process to 'committees' during the work day. It's not as simple as that, but it is indeed time for a fresh and evolved model that reflects a demand-driven shift in our economy and culture.
After reading the post, it felt to me like a mental yoga. It allowed me to stretch, to center, to think good thoughts. I encourage everyone to stop by and stretch your minds a little. Get back to the happy place. Think about what could be better in downtown, and how we could do it. It is time to focus on what could be done rather than focus on what can’t be done.

07 August 2007

Beat the Heat

I have been out in the heat today for two hours, and it is not pleasant. One way to beat the heat is to stay indoors and hit the web. I have a trio of websites that could provide (at least) a few hours of entertainment.

First up is an EPA document entitled “Parking Spaces /Community Places, Finding the Balance through Smart Growth Solutions.” I came across this particular document via the Planetizen website. Planetizen is a huge resource. Take some time to check out their space too. Anyway, the picture of the mall in Olympia, Washington looks quite similar to our mall. Follow the link to the EPA paper! It is an interesting read for those who are concerned about automobile dominance in downtown Columbia.

Next up is a website that will measure the walk-ability of your neighborhood. Just type in the address, and the website begins to populate the local attractions using Google. The site then ranks the walk-ability on a scale of 0-100, and lists the local attractions on the left hand side. After using this website for a little while, I noticed it is only as accurate as the amenities listed in Google. There are some places I have never heard of, and some recent additions that have not made it onto Google yet. Full addresses are not needed. You can omit house numbers, or even streets. An interesting comparison of the Columbia Zip Codes is worth doing. For those who believe downtown is super pedestrian friendly, the address of the Columbia Association headquarters yields a score of 85 (very walkable), but I believe that they intend for folks to walk to Food Lion for groceries. Most neighborhoods in Columbia dwell in the middle twenties.

Lastly, a little bit of censusphile fun. A new website called Social Explorer allows the user to browse data, presented in map form, from the 1940’s to present day. You can zoom in to Howard County or even Columbia to see how population, average age, housing, poverty, etc has changed over time. It is well worth a look.

Well, that’s all I have for keeping occupied while the sun is up, happy exploring, and let me know what you think!