21 November 2010

Something to Think About

At the place of “It Can Happen Here,” what almost happened here, happened there.  Columbia, Maryland and Berkeley, California have been intertwined since Columbia’s founder, James Rouse, gave a speech at Berkeley detailing his basis for building Columbia.  Catherine Bauer, the woman who chaired the conference at which James Rouse spoke, taught both Bill Finley (Columbia’s Chief Planner) and Mort Hoppenfeld (Columbia’s Chief Architect) in graduate school. 
Both cities have a population of approximately 100,000.  Both are adjacent to two large cities; Berkeley has Oakland/San Francisco, Columbia has Baltimore and Washington.  Although the Lawrence-Berkeley National Lab is closer to downtown (approx. 1 mile) than NSA is to downtown Columbia (about 8 miles), both Federal centers employ many people in their respective communities.
Fast forward to today, and we find both Berkeley and Columbia looking at their downtowns.  The Berkeley City Council passed zoning legislation in the Summer of 2009 to redevelop their downtown and the Howard County Council passed zoning legislation in the Winter of 2010.  In both cases, residents opposed to the zoning mounted referendum petition drives.  In Columbia, the petition failed, in Berkeley, the petition succeeded and was placed on the ballot as “Measure R.”
Now Berkeley has an interesting structure to their referendum questions.  As part of the ballot process, the Measure is listed on the city website.  Also included on the website is an impartial analysis of the Measure by the City Attorney, as well as arguments for and against the Measure.
The short form of the Measure reads as follows:
Ballot Question
Shall the City of Berkeley adopt policies to revitalize the downtown and help make Berkeley one of the greenest cities in the United States by meeting our climate action goals; concentrating housing, jobs and cultural destinations near transit, shops and amenities; preserving historic resources; enhancing open space; promoting green buildings; and calling for 2 residential buildings and 1 hotel no taller than our existing 180 foot buildings and 2 smaller office buildings up to 120 feet?
As linked above, all of this is still on the City of Berkeley website, and provides a pretty-good understanding of the question.  I will leave it to your individual Google searches to fill in some of the background information, but one of the interesting parallels between the Columbia community and Berkeley community was the use of social media and new web tools.  As with Freemarket’s use of Xtranormal to highlight the Fox/Beams race, it appears that some enterprising folk in Berkeley used the same software.  This gave the virtual impression that although these races were a continent apart, Fox/Beams, and the Berkeley Resident/Nimby Robot were each having a discussion in front of the same virtual building.
I bring this up because, as with most elections, there has been quite a bit of navel gazing about what the election means.  Those that peruse the HoCo blogs have certainly read some of the search for meaning from the Republican point of view.  But there has also been some soul-searching amongst others in the community.  Voter apathy?  Federal workers?  Voters not understanding the message?
A recent column written by San Francisco columnist John King may shed some light on both communities.
Measure R hit all the buttons of 21st century urban environmentalism: The ballot question framed the issue at hand as "concentrating housing, jobs and cultural destinations near transit, shops and amenities" to "revitalize the downtown and help make Berkeley one of the greenest cities in the United States."
The measure also would make room for three buildings of 180 feet - equal to office buildings of the same height from 1925 and 1969 - and opponents responded as though Sears Tower was being shipped to Shattuck Avenue. The ballot arguments warned of "empty promises with destructive proposals" and "a developer-backed plan ... allowing outsized development to overwhelm surrounding neighborhoods." Man the barricades!
For those Democrats that live in District 4, some of the above passage may sound like pieces of mail that began showing up late this summer.  Mr. King goes on to present an interesting hypothesis that may provide some insight here in Howard County.  His column begins:
"Generation gap" is a phrase past its prime, like a guy who thinks he's still hip because Levi's are still his look.
But it rings true in the Bay Area of 2010, especially with regard to attitudes about the shape our cities and suburbs should take.
More and more, there's a disconnect between the established view of how we should grow, and the values of people who weren't even born when activists first battled "Manhattanization." The (mostly) gray-haired guardians who radiate the certainty that They Know Best have dominated the debate for decades, but they can't defy the calendar. With every passing year, the old certainties look a bit more ... old.
Broadly speaking, I think Mr. King might be onto something; however, I do not believe that theories on how cities can sustainably evolve break down solely along generational lines.  What is now clear is that there is more than one viable theory on how a city can grow responsibly.  Mr. King closes with that in mind:
This shift rubs some old-school environmentalists the wrong way, Madsen admits. But as the Berkeley vote shows, it's in sync with younger people who like the idea of filling "their" downtowns with people and life.
"The options aren't the cul-de-sac or Manhattan," Madsen suggests. "What you see in Berkeley is a bit of what we see happening all over the Bay Area. ... People are saying there's a different urban form they'd like to see come to fruition."
I don't want to oversell the transition now under way.
There always will be growth-wary neighbors, at times justifiably so. Some people in their 60s love towers; some people in their 20s loathe them. Nor do I buy the premise that every additional housing unit in San Francisco or Berkeley means one fewer home on distant farmland. Families don't choose between a McMansion in Brentwood or a 20th-floor condo on Rincon Hill.
But here's the difference: This generation of activists has moved beyond the simplistic mind-set that change is to be resisted. Its definition of urbanity doesn't start with the notion that the essence of San Francisco as a place - how it should look, how tall it should rise - was defined once and for all in 1969 or 1984.
One veteran who accepts the shift is John Kriken, a longtime urban designer with the international firm Skidmore Owing & Merrill who also now teaches at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design.
"Kids today have grown up with a much greater awareness of sustainability issues and the role that density plays in protecting land from indiscriminate use," Kriken says. "They see the bigger buildings, and they're not fearful of them."
This doesn't mean today's younger activists are right and the ones of Kriken's era were wrong. It's that - news flash! - times change.
"For every generation that chooses the city, the beginning point is now," Kriken says. "The 'real San Francisco' is today. They don't carry the images in their head that I have in mine, or that my friends have in theirs. They don't have the baggage of all the past battles."
And you know what? That's a good thing.

10 November 2010

Gateway Overlook Shopping Center Sold for $90M.

As General Growth Properties exits bankruptcy, the local effects are felt almost immediately.  According to this Reuters news story, General Growth Properties has sold the Gateway Overlook Shopping Center for $90-million.  The identity of the buyer has not been released.

07 October 2010

The Video Connection

In the end, I blame Michael Nesmith.  The quixotic son of the inventor of liquid paper and former Monkees band member invented the music video and started the company that eventually became MTV.
MTV announced itself to the world when I was a freshman in high school.  Over the last three decades, I never cared much for the other programming on the MTV network, but I did watch the videos.  In particular, I have fond memories of the early Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” and A-Ha’s “Take on Me” videos.  Over time, the videos have evolved, with some breaking more ground than others.
Recently, the band Arcade Fire changed everything with their new interactive video, “The Wilderness Downtown”  This video was released in conjunction with their new album (I guess I’m old enough to call new music releases “albums.”) “The Suburbs.”
The video exists on the internet and prompts the viewer to enter the address of the house they grew up in before viewing.  After an address is entered (from just about anywhere in the world), the video begins to play, and incorporates Google Earth images of that address into the video as Arcade Fire’s song “We Used to Wait” plays in the background.
As with Michael Nesmith’s ground breaking “Elephant Parts,” Arcade Fire’s “The Wilderness Downtown” is not flawless, but it represents such a leap forward that any discernible shortcomings are quickly forgiven.  In particular, the video imagery relies (in part) on Google street views.  If you enter a street address that Google has not driven down, there is less material to work with.  With respect to Columbia, Google has street views of all major roads and some collector roads (think Cradlerock Way or Phelps Luck Drive).
What is also interesting is that the viewer quickly realizes that although the intent of the video is to bring the viewer back to his/her childhood, any address can be used.  I found the video using the Wilde Lake Village Center address (10400 Cross Fox Lane) interesting.
One last word of caution.  This video is resource intensive.  Make sure you use a broadband connection.  “The Wilderness Downtown” can be experienced here.
If you find an address that is particularly cool to view, please post it in the comments section.

24 September 2010

Asian Invasion Redux

Just a quick post here.  I was wondering, what is worse, the snakehead fish invasion or the stinkbug invasion.  And could we work on the lexicon, I am hoping the next invasive species that shows up has a much better name; something like the "rainbow weevil" or the "flower lizard."  Your comments are encouraged.

12 September 2010

The Alan Klein Disinformation Campaign Hits Home

As we move toward Primary Election Day, I was a little surprised to receive a mailer from the Klein Campaign.  Looking it over, I have to say, I’m impressed.  On one side Alan has put together a pair of grainy black and white images showing traffic and tall buildings and inserted between them his characterization of the downtown Columbia plan.  Below this, he asserts what he believes was left out of the plan.  From a graphical presentation standpoint, it’s pretty good.  However, the actual text on the card is fraught with hyperbole, bad information, and flat out lies.  

ak flier-1

If I had been sleeping for the last five years and had to make a decision on who to vote for based on this mailer, I too would engage in the invective and vituperation that has become barbaralynnerussell’s blog.

So in the public interest, let’s take a look at what Alan says and what is the truth:

Assertion:  Unbridled growth will ruin Columbia and Howard County

In addressing this assertion, I will take a page from CA Board member Phil Kirsh (WL), who shares with Alan Klein the endorsement of current State Delegate Bobo, and look some words up in the dictionary.  As defined by the Merriam-Webster website, unbridled is – unrestrained.  So the test here would be – are there any restraints on growth in downtown Columbia?

In examining the unanimously passed downtown zoning and General Plan Amendments, it appears that there are restraints placed on downtown development.  First, the number of dwelling units in downtown Columbia is limited (restrained) to 5500 units.  Moreover, the 5500-unit limit is a ceiling, and not a guarantee.  The units in downtown are further restrained by the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which restricts development based on traffic conditions and school capacity.  Lastly, future development is further restrained based on the delivery of downtown amenities that are to be provided by the developer.

Result:  The term “unbridled” is misplaced and a gross exaggeration.  There is significant evidence that growth is limited in several ways.  To characterize downtown Columbia planning as without restraint is misleading the electorate.

Assertion: Higher Taxes for Howard County Residents

This assertion is a broadside that, if candidate Klein was being responsible, would be further defined.  In fact, I find it surprising that he would include this in his literature given his repeated public shortcomings on understanding the County budget.

I will take liberty in assuming that Klein’s assertion is based on the cost of infrastructure (roads, traffic mitigation, etc), county taxes must increase.  This premise hangs in opposition to the language in the recently enacted Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance.  This ordinance explicitly states that developers in downtown Columbia must pay the cost of roads and traffic mitigation.  So in the narrow definition based on my assumption, the stated assertion is a complete falsehood. 

Inherent in Mr. Klein’s campaign is his support of a position paper that calls for “about 1600 units” in downtown Columbia.  In his alternate development scenario, much of the road network that is to be constructed under the current plan would have to be constructed for his plan.  As I have stated above, the developer must pay for the infrastructure when downtown property is developed.  However, after development is completed, the maintenance, upkeep, and snow removal costs are transferred to the County, and therefore the taxpayers.

What Mr. Klein does not address is the balance of development, roughly 3900 units.  Given the amount of land in Howard County Councilmanic District 4 that has already been developed and transferred into private ownership, it is unlikely that any of the 3900 units would remain in District 4.  Therefore, Mr. Klein by default is advocating for the development of 3900 units in another Howard County district. 

If we once again limit the assumed increase in taxpayer costs to infrastructure costs, Mr. Klein’s plans will cost the taxpayer dearly.  In this part of the discussion it is also important to recognize that Mr. Klein (as stated in his position paper) does not favor buildings more than a few stories tall.  Therefore, I believe it is a safe assumption that a development on the scale of 3900 units that Mr. Klein would endorse would look something like a Columbia neighborhood or village.  I would remind the reader that the linear miles of road constructed in downtown Columbia would be equal under the approved plan or Klein’s vision.  Compare that road maintenance cost with the additional cost of maintaining a road network similar to another neighborhood or village.  I took it upon myself to utilize Google Maps and Google Earth to calculate the linear road miles of three areas of Columbia for comparison.  I would assume an error of 10% (plus or minus) in the linear miles calculation.  Dwelling unit numbers were obtained from the U.S Census (2000) for Kendall Ridge and the Columbia Association Public Information Guide for Dorsey’s Search and Kings Contrivance. 

  • The neighborhood of Kendall Ridge is located in Long Reach, has 2,390 dwelling units and is supported by a road network of 15 miles. 
  • The Village of Dorsey’s Search has 3,368 dwelling units and is supported by a road network of 16 miles. 
  • The Village of Kings Contrivance has 4,025 dwelling units and is supported by a road network of 21 miles.

Given the above data, I believe it is a safe estimate that the 3,900 units that Klein does not account for would require a road network of 18 miles.  Taken over the thirty years of development, the added costs of road maintenance and snow removal would further burden the county budget beyond the downtown Columbia development.  In addition, it is a conservative estimate that roads would have to be resurfaced at least once during the development cycle.  According to data from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, the cost associated with milling and resurfacing a 4-lane road costs approximately $1.25 million per mile.  With a supporting road network of 18-miles, Klein’s unbuilt village would incur a resurfacing cost of $22.5 million to the county during the development period laid out in the downtown Columbia plan. 

A final consideration is that all fiscal studies performed in relation to downtown Columbia development has shown a net positive cash flow to the county.  One additional study should also be considered.  This study, written by Sarasota County Director of Smart Growth Peter Katz, compared traditional growth patterns to mixed use downtown development.  Mr. Katz found that when measured on a per-acre basis, mixed use development yields far more income to the local government than traditional suburban development.  As reported by Mary Newsom, traditional single family home development returned approximately $8200/acre to the local municipality.  Compare this with the following passage in the article:

Indeed, that three-quarters of an acre of in-town urban-style (14- to 16-story) development is worth more property tax revenue than a combination of the 21-acre WalMart Supercenter and the 32-acre Southgate Mall.
Even a mid rise (up to about seven stories) mixed use building brings in $560,000, and the low rise (up to three stories with residential over retail) brings in over $70,000 per acre — more than three times the return of Southgate Mall.

Now the tax structure in Sarasota, FL does not correlate directly with Howard County, MD, but the ratios do correlate.  It is also important to state that very few buildings in downtown Columbia will be in the 14-16 story variety and far more will be in the 0-7 story category.

In addition, Katz also calculated the infrastructure Return on Investment for both in-town mixed use and traditional suburban development.  If the 3900 that Klein does not discuss are built in downtown, the County should see a robust return on investment.  If the 3900 are built in another district, the return will be lower.  Again, from the article:

But Katz and the group that worked with him on the tax analysis, Public Interest Projects, Inc., in Asheville (http://www.pubintproj.com/index.php), N.C., went further than just the revenue analysis. It looked at the payback time, in tax revenue, for the infrastructure costs of various types of residential developments. The payback time for a mixed-use condominium building in the heart of downtown was three years. Want to guess the payback time for the residential portion of a multi-use development out at a highway interchange? It was a whopping 42 years.

It is also worth noting that Sarah covered this very well earlier this year.

Result:  Given the vague assertion that development would directly cause higher taxes, Mr. Klein gives no supporting evidence.  Compare this with fiscal studies performed by professionals that indicate the opposite; the county would see a net increase in revenue.  Mr. Klein also fails to fully explain how under his leadership how 5500 units built anywhere in the county would not increase the tax burden on residents.  Ultimately his assertion must be characterized at a minimum as unproven and more likely a falsehood.

Assertion: Developers given a tax free ride

This assertion certainly sounds like something to get stirred up about.  Why would developers get a free ride on taxes?  Quelle horreur!  But there are two big problems here.  The first is that a State law provides this particular tax break for developers, not county law.  So if Mr. Klein is asserting that the current County Councilperson could have done anything about this, he is dead wrong.  Moreover, if he thinks that he can change State law from the Howard County legislative chambers, he is sorely mistaken.  I wrote about this when Taxpayers Against Giveaways was pushing this misrepresentation, please click over  and take a look for details.  To her credit, current State Delegate Liz Bobo did introduce legislation to change this a few years ago, but failed to garner enough support for the bill to be passed.  If Mr. Klein is looking for blame for a preferential tax structure, he should look to his matriarch, not his competition.

Secondly, the tax break afforded developers is only on unimproved property.  Most of the land associated with downtown Columbia development has already been developed; therefore, any tax break that remains is small and will expire when a shovel goes in the ground.

Result:  This assertion has nothing to do with the County Council position and to imply the zoning decision resulted in an additional tax break for any developer is beyond falsehood, this is a “pants on fire” lie.

Assertion: The downtown Columbia plan did not “Provide sufficient open space”

Funny thing about this assertion.  Thirty years ago, the amount of open space in Town Center was not a concern.  As Town Center has developed over the years, trees were cleared for parking lots, office buildings, and residents.  Much of that development was enthusiastically backed by Alan Klein’s fervent supporters.  Bobo backed tearing down trees and converting open space into the Central Library and parking lot (even in the face of vocal opposition and sit-ins).  If you touch Cy Paumier, he is proud to say that it was his idea to convert the tree-covered commercial sites on the west side of the mall into condo units.  After the Evergreen was constructed (opposite Windstream Drive, along Governor Warfield Parkway), the discussion of open space went dormant.

The current downtown plan emphatically states that all open space in downtown Columbia must be preserved at current levels.  If any property owner wishes to construct anything on open space in downtown Columbia, they must purchase and place into open space an equivalent amount of land, in downtown.  A perfect example of this is the Symphony Woods Park plan that Mr. Klein whole-heartedly endorses.  The Symphony Woods Plan calls for more than an acre of parking (120-150 spaces) adjacent to the park.  Because parking lots are not considered open space, the Columbia Association will be required to purchase an equal amount of land and convert it to open space.

Beyond the general discussion of open space in downtown Columbia, Mr. Klein states on the opposite side of the same mailing card states that he will “Promote measures to…preserve open space” [emphasis mine].  So while he chastises others for “not providing sufficient open space,” he calls for “preserving open space.”  Not increasing open space.

Result:  In this assertion, Mr. Klein attempts to make a case that he himself has not committed to.  Moreover, he supports paving over some open space for a parking lot.  At best, this is a misdirection.

Assertion:  The Columbia downtown plan did not “Create housing opportunities for all”

Mr. Klein has a mixed record on affordable housing, where it goes, and who pays for it.  As reported in the Baltimore Sun:

Klein's position on low-income housing in a rebuilt Wilde Lake Village Center appeared to vary somewhat from what he told a different audience during a forum sponsored Saturday by the African American Coalition at Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church on Cedar Lane.
There, he and Sigaty said village residents believe there is already substantial subsidized housing in the community and are concerned that requiring it in new units built at the village center might create too great a concentration. "There's already a significant spectrum of housing in Wilde Lake," Klein said.
But Tuesday night, Klein added to his general criticism of the housing portion of the downtown plan by saying there is no requirement for affordable housing at the Wilde Lake center. He called the omissions "a violation of Columbia's values."

I also think the African Americans in Howard County letter to Explore Howard and posted by HoCoRising characterizes the issue far better than I could attempt to explain.

Result:  Klein has waffled on this subject and fails to connect his vision with a concrete plan.

Assertion:  The downtown Columbia plan does not “provide for schools sites, fire or police stations, build parking garages, adequate sidewalks and other infrastructure to support their projects”

Alan either has not read or is hoping no one will read what is actually in the downtown zoning or general plan amendment.  Infrastructure requirements (as he calls them) are built into the plan and Alan knows it.  He is trying to create a smokescreen of fear.  A clear example of this can be found on Columbia 2.0

Result:  This assertion goes to the core of what is wrong with Alan’s campaign.  Chalk up another lie for the man who lives in Hobbits Glen.


As the primary campaign nears its end, Alan Klein continues to engage in lies, gross exaggerations, and otherwise conduct a campaign of fear in District 4.  It is becoming apparent that as the final hours tick away, Mr. Klein will resort to any means to secure a win.  It is my hope that the electorate in District 4 will turn away from this distasteful campaign.

03 September 2010

Watching 10221 Wincopin – CA Budget Woes Strain Corporation’s Ability to Complete Projects

There’s a foreboding tone coming out of the Columbia Association these days.  There’s talk of lowered expectations.  There’s talk of asking for a county or state bailout.  The CA President is saying “We don’t want to ruin bond ratings.”

In a story posted this afternoon over at Explore Howard, Jennifer Broadwater details a meeting held last night.  The news is not good.  The cost of properly dredging Lake Kittamaquandi has swelled by an additional $2.25 million dollars.  This is on top of the $1.3 million dollars added to the budget to finish the dredging project at Lake Elkhorn.

A sub-committee of the CA Board of Directors has recommended an $1.3 million increase in funds for the project.  However, this will not remove all the accumulated sediment in Lake Kittamaquandi, it will only allow for critical areas to be dredged. 

CA Board member Alex Hekimian (OM) remarks in the article appear to be targeted toward local and state governments:

“What’s going on at Lake Kittamaqundi is not just a Columbia problem. This is not just Columbia’s downtown. This is Howard County’s downtown.”

And I am at a loss who CA Board Chair Coyle is addressing her remarks:

“We’re taking our responsibility very seriously to clean up the environment,” she said. “But you know we’re not solely responsible.”

However, she does have her sacred cow:

But Coyle said she is not comfortable with dipping into funding for Symphony Woods, the 38-acre downtown property where the association plans to add a fountain, paths and other park features to draw more visitors.
 “I am very worried about that,” Coyle said. “I’m completely against taking a nickel out of next year’s (Symphony Woods) budget.”

As we look at this mess, we should try to understand how bad this is.  It’s not Lehman Brothers bad, CA is not going away.  It’s not General Motors bad, CA will not be taken over by the State or County government. 

CA is just hard pressed right now to come up with the cash they need.  They have a lot of valuable assests.  They have a good revenue stream (we will collectively have to cough up another $30 million next July when we pay our liens).  CA doesn’t have a problem with insolvency, they have a problem with liquidity.  Which sounds a little bit like another major landowner in downtown Columbia.

Klein Yard Sign Campaign Sinks to New Lows


One of the low-wattage aspects of the current Democratic Primary race in Howard County District 4 has been the Klein campaign’s repeated violation of County sign laws.  If you drive around western Columbia, you will find Klein signs planted in the county right-of-ways, in median strips, and just about anywhere there is enough dirt to plant them.  Although the Klein campaign has been asked, more than once, to remove the signs from illegal locations, the practice continues.

It is my understanding that Alan Klein has weighed in on this himself, saying that because the county had said that it would not enforce laws this year, he can put signs just anywhere he chooses.  The laws that the county is not enforcing deal with elections.  That is to say, signs that exceed the regulated size restriction or the duration that they are up before the election will not be taken down.  However, laws regarding sign placement are still in effect.  Signs are not to be placed in right of ways.

The Klein sign above is especially troubling.  It is not only in the County right of way, it is blocking access to a fire hydrant, raising issues of the Klein’s disregard to public safety. And for those of you who think this is not a big deal, look again and think of your kitchen on fire, and how a firefighter explains to you that they may have gotten to the fire a minute or two earlier, but they had to remove a sign to gain access to the fire hydrant.

I think this reflects Klein’s approach to most topics.  Regardless of what the law says, or the county policy, it is his interpretation of that law and policy that matters.  In yesterday’s Columbia Flier, a fellow Wilde Lake resident spoke of hubris in this year’s primary.  I think the picture above demonstrates the hubris evident in this election much more clearly.

01 September 2010

Incumbent Democrat Bobo Assails O’Malley Administration

As the media has designated Howard County as a bellweather for the upcoming election, recent statements by candidates have started to characterize how much the county is in play.  Last night at a candidate’s forum held in Columbia, Maryland, current State Delegate Bobo stated that she is an independent Democrat and is proud that she at times votes against the majority of Democrats in the State Legislature.  When asked about protecting the rights of whistleblowers, Delegate Bobo said that the O’Malley Administration had not done enough to protect whistleblowers and if elected she would introduce legislation to correct this deficiency.

On a related topic, Delegate Bobo said that she was going to lead a group called “Howard County Women for O’Malley” in the near future.

The Awakening

So its been a while.  Stay tuned, we're back in business....

28 April 2010

2010 Census Update

The US Census Bureau has tallied the participant responses for the mail-in portion of the 2010 Census.  In addition, they have mapped the participation rates of most local areas.  Participation rates in the Columbia area are as follows:

A visual representation of the above data can be viewed by taking the following steps:

Click on the red "Census 2010" square in the Census widget to the right.
Click on light blue “view participation rates” box.
Enter Columbia zip code (i.e. 21045)
Click on “Find”
Click on “Local View”

27 April 2010

Increasing Village Voter Turnout might be a Bread and Butter (and Cheese) Issue

I bring this to the Compass Nation with only a smidgen of seriousness.

As the reporting on the Village Elections begins to trickle in, the issue of voter turnout comes up.  In Wilde Lake, a competitive CA Board election helped drive a healthy turnout of 24%.  Meanwhile in Hickory Ridge, the Columbia Flier/Explore Howard product reports that not enough people voted to reach a quorum.

In most years, voter turnout has been an issue and many villages employ different means to increase the numbers.  Owen Brown and Kings Contrivance allow for voting to occur over two days.  Kings Contrivance typically also sponsors a fish at the National Aquarium based on kids votes (I like that!). 

Oakland Mills has a houseplant sale.  Other villages hold flea markets.

Yesterday I came across a report that might be lightning in the electoral bottle, or it may be a flop.  It turns out that the same weekend that Columbia Village Elections were held was also an event-filled weekend – in Los Angeles.

The event that I speak of is none other than the 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational (Not a typo).  Reports indicate that thousands of people thronged the invitational to sample derivations on the grilled cheese theme, with accompanying soups.  I personally would like to try the mozzarella with tomato and basil grilled cheese (a grilled caprece?) with a side of Italian wedding soup. 

So, if a village held a grilled cheese invitational the same day as the election, maybe voter turnout would skyrocket.  Most people I know love the bread-butter-cheese comfort food and maybe we could get a local restaurant to help out.  Although sometimes hot, the normally cool and cloudy April election weather would be the optimum type of weather for melted, gooey, slightly slippery triangles.

And lastly, grilled cheese is one of those normalizing foods.  You just can’t get worked up about things when you have a grilled cheese sandwich in your hands.

In the words of the Los Angeles Grilled Cheese Invitational:


23 April 2010

Election Correction

For the last five years, the CA/Village Board elections in Wilde Lake have been what could be politely termed, a “spirited” event.  In recent years Wilde Lake residents have seen campaign literature dropped on their doorsteps and arrive in their mailboxes.  Prominent officials elected to state office have sent emails, dropped personal notes on doors, and personally called residents.  And this year, we have seen yard signs popping up around the neighborhood.

phil sign

linda sign

With this as a backdrop, we find in Thursday’s Columbia Flier a few letters to the editor endorsing either Phil Kirsch or Linda Odum in this year’s race for Wilde Lake Columbia Council Representative.  These letters are often written by well meaning residents moved enough by the election issues to publicly espouse their support for one candidate or another.  Sometimes the letters portray the stance of a candidate in a negative light (as compared to the candidate of their choice).  For example, Wilde Lake resident Joyce Ardo takes incumbent Phil Kirsch to task regarding shoreline erosion on Wilde Lake.   However, those letters encouraging support for Phil Kirsch, published less than 100 hours before the polls open, raise some concerns.


Wilde Lake resident Ethel Hill authored the first letter of concern.  Ethel is a long tenured Wilde Lake resident and has a long history of public involvement.  She has served on many boards and is a former Wilde Lake Village Board Chair.  Her dedication to the community is well known and stands above most.  We are lucky to have people like Ethel living in Wilde Lake. 

For many years, Ethel Hill has advocated for the Columbia Association to institute a Montgomery Village style leaf collection program.  Ms. Hill believes this would benefit all Columbia residents, and in particular those residents that choose to age in place.  Under this program, residents would push fallen leaves into the street and have the Columbia Association collect the leaves for disposal. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I first became aware of Ethel Hill’s leaf collection idea in 2007.  In that year, I ran against Phil Kirsch for the Wilde Lake Columbia Council Representative position.  That spring Ethel penned a Columbia Flier letter to the editor that stated (in part):

For instance, some of the CA assessment could be used to provide sidewalk snow-removal services instead of opting to spend enormous sums to compete with better-positioned privately owned health clubs. For another, why not contract for leaf pickup, requiring only that residents sweep leaves to the sidewalk rather than bearing the onerous or impossible task (for some) of either bagging leaves or having the expense of paying someone to do it.

Three years later, her concerns still not addressed, Ethel Hill attended the Wilde Lake Candidates Night to again put the question to both Columbia Council Representative candidates.  Phil Kirsch, now addressing the question for the second time, expressed concern for Ethel’s plight and recalled a time when he was president of a group of single family homes in Bryant Woods.  He went on to say that by representing several houses in the community, he was able to obtain a favorable rate for leaf removal from a landscaping company.  Linda Odum responded by stating that there might be a greener, earth-friendly solution in that residents could, in cooperation with the county, establish leaf composting on their property; thereby eliminating the time and expense of bagging the leaves and also providing a source of nutrient rich compost product to be used by the property owner to fertilize existing shrubs and trees.

In her letter to the editor, Ethel recounts the exchange as follows:

Unfortunately, however, the Columbia Association remains stuck on attracting and providing for the interests and needs of younger residents and are ignoring quality-of-life issues important to "seasoned" people, especially those of us who are homeowners.
If you suspect there is a bee in my bonnet, you are absolutely right. One of them is the huge cost we incur for leaf removal alone. The least residents should be able to expect for the lien assessment we pay is a system whereby the leaves can be raked to the sidewalk for pickup. This is how it's done in Montgomery Village. If CA would behave like the homeowner's association it is intended to be, perhaps it wouldn't be so difficult to identify the resources to fund such relief.
When I raised this issue with Linda Odum, Phil's opponent in the race, she basically ignored my concern by responding that we should fix up our houses to sell because lots of young families are interested in buying them. Linda, I don't want to move!

I cannot in my mind reconcile how Ms. Hill leapt from “composting” to “fix up our houses to sell because lots of young families are interested in buying them.”  In the end, I appreciate that Ethel Hill took the time to write a letter to the editor.  It speaks to the resident-based activism that is alive and well in Wilde Lake.  With respect to the content, I am saddened that Ethel missed the point of Linda’s response.


In a second letter to the editor, Wilde Lake resident Valerie Montague Gonlin also endorses Phil Kirsch.  Valerie is also a well-respected member community.  She has been active in the Downtown Columbia discussion and is the former President of the Wilde Lake High School PTSA.  As with other letters to the editor, Valerie builds the case for Phil Kirsch with supportive statements.  Toward the end of the letter, Valerie states:

Phil is a low-key, pragmatic leader who works steadfastly on our behalf, even in the face of criticism from some with vested interests. He made sure CA adopted a plan that will protect Symphony Woods and ensure that Columbia has a community park that is an attractive year-round gathering place. In contrast, his opponent has called for high-rises in that space.

Once again, the comments regarding Phil’s opponent are inconsistent with the record.  I have never heard anyone say that they wanted high-rise buildings in Symphony Woods.  I am pretty sure there is 100% opposition to high-rise buildings in Symphony Woods.  Moreover, no one has ever suggested high-rises in Symphony Woods, until Valerie suggested it.

Like Ethel Hill, it is great to hear Valerie’s voice this election season.  However, to include statements that were never made, and attributing them to Linda Odum is wrong.  It is my hope that Valerie will submit another letter to the editor stating that she had bad information and did not have the time to check it out before making outrageous statements.

As many of the Compass faithful know, I am currently a member of the Wilde Lake Village Board, and I am a candidate to be on next year’s board.  If you scroll way, way, way down to the bottom of the blog, you will find my disclaimer.  Over the years, I have made a conscientious effort to keep Wilde Lake business off of these pages.  In the end, I think both Linda and Phil care deeply about Wilde Lake and Columbia, and I look forward to working with the election winner.

What brought me to write this blog post, at this time, was that I felt it was unfair to attribute statements that were never said.  One of the key factors for me was I asked myself, “Would I write this post if these types of letters were written about people in another village election?”  My answer to that is unequivocally “Yes.”  The fact that I know all the people involved in this post makes it difficult, and painful.

It is up to the Wilde Lake electorate to find the differences in these two candidates and make an educated decision based on what was actually said by the candidates.  It is my hope that this blog post will help clear the air so that can happen.

16 April 2010

Bloggers Making News in the Region

Over in Montgomery County, the Planning Department hosted an evening with five local bloggers as part of their “ReThink Montgomery”  series.  The topic of conversation was as follows:

Technology is changing the way we communicate.  Our news sources are shifting from print journalism to blogging. How does this transformation affect the field of planning?  Does blogging help bring in a broader pool of participants and ideals? Does it make planning more accessible and equitable? Join five local bloggers as we ReThink the way knowledge is shared in Montgomery County.

The bloggers featured in this discussion were:

Cindy Cotte Griffiths, Rockville Central
Eric Robbins, Thayer Avenue

Each has a great blog and had great insight into the topic of discussion.  In fact, many othe topics discussed do translate well to the discussions we have here in Howard County.  If you have some time I would encourage everyone to click over to the Mongomery County website and watch the meeting.

Yesterday, Kojo Nnamdi had three Prince George’s County bloggers on to talk about blogging in their neighborhood:

It's one of the most dynamic suburban counties in our region-- home to diverse neighborhoods and the largest African American middle class community in the country. But Prince George's County doesn't always make it into the headlines of local newscasts and papers. We talk with local bloggers about their communities.

Audio of the show can be streamed here.  Again, the conversation was stimulating and the featured bloggers were impressive.  The PG Bloggers were:

David Daddio, Rethink College Park
Charles Andrews, CHV Blog (Cheverly, MD)

As with most local bloggers, I work hard on my blog and I hold my fellow Howard County bloggers in very high esteem.  I believe that Howard County has one of the liveliest, thoughtful, intelligent and diverse blogging communities in Maryland, if not the United States.Hopefully, these types of discussions between bloggers, local government and the established media can be replicated in Howard County.  

12 April 2010

Changing the View

I have been working on functionality here.  Notice the new picture in the banner, the Twitter feed, and I'm working on integrating Facebook.  I am also proud to note that I am the first blog in Howard County to track the 2010 US Census participation rate (c'mon Howard Countians! Carroll County is ahead of us as of 4/12/10!).

15 March 2010

Why I won't sign the referendum petition, yet...

I have tried to keep an open mind about the referendum petition to repeal the downtown Columbia zoning legislation.  The “pop-up” group Taxpayers Against Giveaways has taken the lead on the petition signature gathering and state on their website that “Over the next several weeks we will detail how CB-59 grants huge tax windfalls to GGP, relieves GGP of infrastructure obligations typically incurred by other developers, substantially and permanently exacerbates traffic congestion, continues the exemption from State Forest Conservation requirements required of other developers, and fails to provide any environmental sustainability requirements for new construction.”

Well, it hasn’t been several weeks, but it has been more than a few.  So far, no details from the TAGs.  Have they lost steam?  I have no idea.  What I do know is that some of their arguments need some explaining before I can sign their petition, much less vote for a referendum this November.

One thing I believe is that TAG appears to be embellishing their claims. Two things that have stuck out for me has been TAG’s assertion that as a result of passing the legislation, the county “grants GGP a huge tax windfall,” and that the legislation “continues the exemption from State Forest Conservation requirements.” 

Property Tax Windfall?

Absent any concrete details from the TAGs, I started doing some of my own research.  The first claim I researched was the assertion that there is a special tax exemption in Council Bill CB-59.  I looked in the bill and could not find any specific language that provided a tax windfall to GGP.  None was found.  Getting a little frustrated, I searched the TAG website and found a link to a document called “Canvasser Flier.”  I would imagine this is flier intended to be handed out by canvassers as they ask for signatures.  This flier contains a bullet-point that states:

  • Developer not taxed on increased land value for many years (probably decades)

That bullet point helped clear things up a little.  It appears that the TAGs are once again aiming at a state law that allows developers to pay property taxes as if their undeveloped acres were agricultural land.  The actual text of the law can be found in the Maryland Code of Regulations - Maryland Code – Tax-Property – Title 8. Valuation and Assessment – Subtitle 2. Assessment Procedures – Section 8-220.

Now the TAGs said they wanted to put the downtown Columbia zoning bill to a referendum vote this November because of density.  They have been emphatic that the petition drive is about density.  What we find in TAG’s literature are these references to State laws, not county laws.  The State laws deal with property taxes, not density.  To make the connection that passing a county zoning law could in any way affect the state property tax law is misleading and disingenuous.  This is a reason that the TAGs give (in written form) for people to sign the petition.


Simlarly, the TAGs have asserted that the new zoning bill (CB-59) “continues the exemption from State Forest Conservation requirements required of other developers.”  Once again, we go to the Maryland State Code of Regulations (COMAR) to find some answers.  Forest conservation is overseen by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the regulations for administering forest conservation can be found in Maryland Code of Regulations - Maryland Code – Natural Resources – Title 5. Forests and Parks – Subtitle 16. Forest Conservation – Section 5-1601.

Of particular interest of this part of the code is Section 5-1603(c)(3)(ii), which states:

A local forest conservation program, when approved by the Department, may allow clustering and other innovative land use techniques that protect and establish forests where open space is preserved, sensitive areas are protected, and development is physically concentrated. 

In developing their Forest Conservation Manual, the Howard County Government did look into innovative land use techniques used in the county and inserted the following text into the Howard County Forest Conservation Manual.

A planned unit development which has preliminary development plan approval and 50 percent or more of the land is recorded and substantially developed before December 31, 1992;

It is also interesting to note that this same language appears in the Howard County Code

Now the inclusion of the above text is not taken lightly by the Department of Natural Resources.  By law, DNR reviews the Howard County Forest Conservation Manual every two years to ensure forested areas are being preserved.  The last Howard County Forest Conservation Manual revision was June, 7, 1999.  Therefore, DNR has reviewed the document on five separate occasions and has deemed no changes are necessary.

So here we are again.  The County Council passes a zoning bill for downtown Columbia and the TAGs are up in arms about Forestry regulations that were passed in 1992 and have been endorsed (in their current form) by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for almost a decade.  This also seems like piling on and has nothing to do with the density stated in CB-59.

All I’m asking for is some straight talk from TAG.  If you wish to circulate a petition to take a zoning bill to referendum this fall, please do.  But please make a convincing argument that, as you state, the density in the legislation is incorrect.  Make your case, suggest an alternative density, and support your alternative with rigorous facts and models.

Please do not intermingle legacy issues that have no tie to the recently passed legislation.  It cheapens your cause.  Implying that the newly enacted legislation provides a new tax break to GGP is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. How many people have signed this petition thinking that?  How can I sign a petition of someone who misrepresents facts? How do you sleep at night?

Piggybacking a twenty-year old regulation that you think falls short into this petition is equally onerous.  If there is concern about how the Forest Conservation Act is applied, why not advocate for changing the Howard County Forest Conservation Manual?  The number of trees in downtown Columbia and the future density are not directly linked.  Most of the new apartments and condos in downtown will be built on existing parking lots.  And why wasn't TAG out in front of the Forest Conservation Act during the Columbia Village Center legislation?  That legislation amended the same section of the zoning code that CB-59 does, but the Forest Conservation Act was not brought up at all during testimony on that bill.Howard County Forest Conservation Manual.  The number of trees in downtown Columbia and the future density are not directly linked.  Most of the new apartments and condos in downtown will be built on existing parking lots.  And why wasn’t TAG out in front of the Forest Conservation Act during the Columbia Village Center legislation?  That legislation amended the same section of the zoning code that CB-59 does, but yet the Forest Conservation Act was not brought up at all.

TAG it’s time for you to start discussing density and the real reasons you oppose the recently enacted zoning legislation.  Otherwise, your silence on density and the forwarding of arguments unrelated to CB-59 show your group to not be truthful and your petition drive to be less than honorable.

12 March 2010

Posting regularly helps...

Things have been too quiet over here in the Columbia Compass world.  It's all my fault.  I haven't posted in a long, long time. 

That's not to say I don't read the blogs.  HoCoRising is beginning to become a regular stop for me.  I have many other regulars that I visit frequently and I wanted to mention two:  Just Up the Pike, and Tales of Two Cities.  Dan Reed writes "Just Up the Pike" and focuses on issues in the Silver Spring/Rt. 29 corridor.  His stuff is always enlightening and his recent post links to a Maryland Politics Watch post on the most read blogs in Maryland.

Just Up the Pike ranks second and our good friend Wordbones comes in a close third (with a 186% increase in views Feb09 to Feb10).  Great job gentleman, I'll keep reading, and possibly start writing...again.