Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Throwing More Money at Healthy Howard Access Plan

The Healthy Howard Access Plan is a plan that helps individuals or families gain access to comprehensive health insurance and health coaching. The plan fees run on a scale with income and can run from $50 to $115 per month. According to this Baltimore Sun report, to date, the County has 200 people enrolled in the program and 250 pending applications for an unknown number of people. That currently is less than 10% of the stated year one goal of enrolling 2200 people in the program.

Around 2500 other folks that have enrolled in the service have been referred to other programs at the state and national level that could help them instead. Many of them are children.

The County has not met its enrollment goals for the program, but combining referrals and health coaching to encourage proactive health monitoring may save the County lots of money over time.

Also, there is a $500,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation for the program that is yet unspent.

These are the facts that framed the County Council debate on spending another half million dollars on the program for FY2010. Councilman Greg Fox opposed that amount of money and sought to cut the funding by half given the program's enrollment challenges. He was soundly defeated.

Fox's message resonates with my feeling that Healthy Howard could do wonders for the county as a public health awareness program. It can achieve its goals by being a combination of a referral service and a program that educates the HoCo public about the importance of not being reactionary when it comes to health. The combination will help prevent very expensive emergency room visits, skipping out on those bills, and having that cost passed on to the insured in the County.

Healthy Howard does not have to be a gateway to local insurance plans. It can be effective with the stated mission above and not have to spend $1 million this year to do it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ethics Complaint Against Bobo Dismissed

Freemarket has the exclusive on the news that the Jud Malone ethics complaint against Delegate Elizabeth Bobo has been dismissed. Basically, the Ethics Committee supported Bobo's excuse:
CA is considered a private homeowner’s association by the committee, so according to the committee there is no ethical problem with Bobo using a taxpayer provided resource (her official delegate e-mail address) to stump for whoever she wants for the CA board.
Of course, the Committee doesn't recognize the influence that said "private homeowner's association" has on Columbia and its politics. Quite a bogus decision from the House of Delegates. Then again, they convened in a special session to hike state income taxes, recently approved speed cameras statewide, and are a generally corrupt body. Did you expect anything different?

County Will Not Reconfigure Timbers at Troy Golf Hole

Jen Broadwater has the story that the County has declined to reroute the 13th hole at Timbers at Troy golf course to stop the flow of golf balls into the backyards and windows of homes that line that hole.
Covenants tied to the course and the surrounding Lyndwood property state that homeowners “assumed the risk of injury to or death of persons and of damage to property resulting from the use of the golf course by other persons in a reasonable manner.”

In the letter, Arthur added that if the residents decided to put up nets or plant trees as a barrier between their houses and the course, the county would not pay for the changes but could refer the residents to companies and landscaping contractors.

“As I indicated to you at the meeting, we will continue our outreach to golfers publicizing on our receipts and with outside signage that they are responsible for their golf shots,” Arthur’s letter states.
As a golfer and golf writer, I know that playing on a course lined with houses is a dangerous proposition for the player. I am responsible for any damage that I do to a house on the course. If I do damage and am not contacted or know it happened, then it is up to the homeowner. They bought into that when they bought their home. It is not up to the County to provide netting or reroute the hole to protect people who did not read the covenant.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

County Council Member Shows Arrogance

I was catching up on HoCo news this morning at the Baltimore Sun and saw a story about the supposed success of the texting and speed camera legislation passed by the Maryland legislature. The legislative value of those laws aside - they are ridiculous and thinly-veiled taxes - there was a second part of Larry Carson's piece about efforts of Republicans to challenge Democratic domination of the eastern County.
Anthony C. Jordan, 29, a five-year resident of New Colony Village in Elkridge, said he's planning a run for the District 2 County Council seat now held by Democrat Calvin Ball, who was appointed in April 2006 to succeed David A. Rakes.

A former Air Force staff sergeant and married father of two preschool girls, Jordan said he has a fundraiser planned for May 2 at Houlihan's restaurant in Gateway shopping center and plans a vigorous door-to-door effort. County GOP Chairwoman Joan Becker said Jordan has been active for about six months and is a welcome addition to the Republican candidate ranks.
Not knowing Mr. Jordan, it's pretty cool to me that he is deciding to take the plunge. He wants to represent his community in a different fashion than how he defended it as a member of the military. Meanwhile, Councilman Ball shows his arrogance in response to Mr. Jordan's potential challenge.
"I think it would be challenging for someone with limited experience and who may not really have done a great deal in the community to be successful," said Ball, 33.
Let me get this right. Calvin Ball is 33. A solid four years older than Jordan. Ball basically has one full term in office under his belt. And, he is criticizing a man who served in our military as having little community experience? You gotta be kidding me.

It would seem that Mr. Ball is out of touch with this comment. Playing the experience card is hilariously wrong in this situation for several reasons. One, Mr. Ball has less than one full term of experience as an elected official. Second, in order to gain experience in the community and as a legislator, someone has to win an election first. Third, having experience doesn't necessarily work out to be a benefit. If the person with experience does a poor job, is ineffective, or has lousy ideas, then experience is a curse - not a blessing.

As someone who is yet to be elected to the position for a full term, it would seem that Mr. Ball should be more careful in his remarks.

Friday, April 17, 2009

GGP Files for Bankruptcy Protection

It was official yesterday, but never unexpected. GGP filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court. Derek Simmonsen and Jennifer Broadwater have the details of the local connection of the filing. Largely, Columbia goes unaffected by the filing.

The Mall in Columbia, the master-planned community of Columbia, and the development in Columbia Town Center are not involved in the bankruptcy filings, according to information posted on the company’s Web site.

Other local GGP properties not involved in the filings are the American City Building in downtown Columbia, the Columbia Association building, Towson Town Center, Laurel Commons and Mondawmin Mall.

Some local properties owned by or affiliated with General Growth that are part of the bankruptcy filing include Gateway Overlook shopping center, on the eastern edge of Columbia, and the Hickory Ridge Village Center, in west Columbia.
GGP has said that it plans to continue with its ZRA 113 and General Plan Amendment submissions.
“As we have said many times, a good general plan and zoning will run with the land,” Hamm said. “Regardless of who owns it or what the circumstances are, a quality plan and all that comes with it survives transfers, survives economic ups and downs.”
County Executive Ken Ulman and the County Council were not surprised by the filing and are figuring out what to do about it.

As I said in my testimony to the Planning Board, this filing should continue regardless of GGP's health. If GGP does wind up having to include Columbia Town Center in its filings, then it will likely go to new ownership. That ownership may or may not consist of one company, continuing in the tradition of Rouse Company. Therefore, it is critical to devise a plan that will be (a) enforceable and (b) forward-looking.

At the same time, this gives the Planning Board some more serious considersations in their deliberations. Also, it gives our government officials more responsibility for developing a plan that will stand up regardless of ownership. This plan should be reviewed as though we, the taxpayers, would be on the hook for infrastructure change and development. It should be reviewed under a what-if scenario that we will not have an owner/developer like GGP, with whom we have a decent relationship.

This filing does not mean the death of ZRA 113 and the GPA. It actually means that this filing carries even more weight than before the filing. The economic future of our town center hinges upon it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Public Testimony on ZRA 113 Shows Clear Split

Derek Simmonsen has a post up on Explore Howard that links to the DPZ report on the public testimony submitted for ZRA 113 and the themes of it. Simmonsen says that the public is basically split down the middle on their opinion of the plan.

Digging a little deeper, 25 community organizations testified on ZRA 113. 32% (so, 8) organizations testified in support, 52% (13) recommended amendments, and the remainder - 4 - requested that GGP resubmit its proposal. Since Planning Board deliberation began in private on Monday, that last part was not going to happen.

Individuals told a more sorted tale. 50% of individuals who testified were in support of the plan as submitted. 24% - of which I was part - submitted testimony requesting modifications to the proposal. 11% asked for a resubmission. 15% were against the proposal altogether.

Derek refers to this as a 50-50 split among individuals. I wouldn't be inclined to call it that, but you couldn't either say that 74% support the proposal. 24% of respondents seem to support aspects of the GGP plan, but have trepidation about one or several key aspects. Given the breadth of this proposal, that should be expected.

Again, this is a small sampling of Columbia. Around 0.1% of Columbia responded with testimony. I'm not sure what that level of apathy says about the support for the plan. It is my hope, though, that the DPZ will provide us with meeting minutes and the like to get a better feel for the Planning Board deliberation and recommendations.

Vandals Attack Iron Bridge for a Second Time

Earlier in March, vandals attacked the Iron Bridge wine bar and restaurant off of Route 108. They smashed windows and left graffiti messages about the restaurant's decision to serve foie gras. Foie gras is the liver of a fattened goose or duck. Animal activists say that the fowl are overfed in order to produce the delicacy, which they say is inhumane.

The folks at Iron Bridge did not remove foie gras from the menu as a result of the vandalism. I guess that spurred the vandals on, because the Columbia Flier reports that they struck again this week with two softball sized rocks through windows.

It appears that the restaurant will not back down.
[Restaurant co-owner Steve] Wecker said that he and his brother Rob, who own the restaurant, are not backing down. Since the last incident, the owners have instituted a Foie Gras Friday in which foie gras is served in three different ways, he said.

The restaurant also has begun selling “Got Foie Gras?” T-shirts and business has been brisk, he said. Staff members are also wearing the T-shirts, he said.

“We’re not giving in to terrorism,” Wecker said “If they think that we’re going to say, 'Well, OK, fine, you win,' they’re incorrect.”
Good for them. I don't care what your feelings are about the dish in question. You may find it inhumane. I wouldn't disagree with you. I'm not enough of a foodie or animal lover to be certain. But that does not make it ok to vandalize private property.

I hope that these vandals are caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There is no justification for a crime like this.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Council Rejects Plan to Open Age Restricted Communities to Younger Buyers

ZRA 108 went before the County Council last night. It was a proposal from a local developer to allow up to 20% of homes in age-restricted communities to be purchased by people younger than the age threshold. (In most cases, that is 50 or 55.)

The Council unanimously rejected the proposal. Larry Carson in the Sun:
The bill was requested by Brantly Development Group as a way to attract more buyers during the recession, but council members sided with county planners and with scores of older residents who protested that they bought the specially zoned units because they were restricted for seniors. Changing the rules now would be wrong, they argued.

"I just don't think this is the right direction to go," said Fulton Republican Greg Fox.

"I didn't hear any answers to how homeowners' association would enforce this," said Jen Terrasa, a King's Contrivance Democrat.

"I could not find any redeeming qualities in this bill," said Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.
I'm inclined to agree with the Council's findings. There are much broader implications for this kind of zoning amendment. Since these homes are generally priced below market rate for like-styled homes, these could be susceptible to prospectors and other dangers. Also, people who have already bought in these communities purchased homes under a certain set of assumptions about their neighbors. They are entitled to keep that kind of community.

Perhaps a better approach would be to offer to not charge property taxes on purchases of these homes for up to three years so as to encourage people within the age restriction to take the plunge. Builders, though, should not be bailed out for making bad decisions on construction - particularly when it comes to age-restricted communities.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Resident Files Ethics Complaint Against Del. Bobo

On Explore Howard today, Derek Simmonsen has details about Jud Malone's ethics complaint filed against Delegate Liz Bobo.
Jud Malone, president of Columbia Tomorrow, a local group supportive of General Growth Properties’ downtown redevelopment plan, filed the complaint March 26 with the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. In his complaint, he cited e-mails from 2007 and 2008 in which Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, endorsed candidates in CA elections using her official state e-mail.

In his complaint, Malone cited ethics rules against using the legislature’s e-mail system for non-public purposes and to influence campaigns.
Then, over at Free Market, I saw Bill Santos' post that has a letter that Bobo sent from her state account pertaining to the CA election in question.

Bobo claims ignorance of the ethics rule.

This is the second time in recent memory that Bobo has claimed ignorance as a political excuse for her actions. Earlier in the year, Bobo claimed that she cast a vote for a bill that she thought was a different bill. She then used that as an excuse to revisit the vote and conveniently change it after politics dictated a vote change.

At the same time, there are worse things than this. Sure, this is unethical. But an email is not the end of the world unless it is only the tip of an iceburg that we are yet to know. Honestly, I doubt that is the case.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

County Executive Budgets for Route 40 Design Manual

We have been talking in this space for many months about the need for comprehensive commercial zoning and design planning in Howard County. This has been talked about in the context of Marc Norman's charge to take Council Bill 58 to referendum. The battle over how best to achieve holistic commercial zoning in the County has spilled over to the Letter to the Editor pages of County publications, including a back and forth between myself and former Council member Angela Beltram.

It looks like the discussion is paying dividends. County Executive Ken Ulman is proposing $100,000 in the budget for a consultant to draft a Route 40 Design Manual. Council member Courtney Watson engaged Ulman and the DPZ to compel Ulman to decide that an outside consultant should be brought in to write the manual. This is exactly the kind of thing I have been calling for all along and I'm very pleased to see that it may well make the final cut of the budget.

Monday, March 30, 2009

GGP to Shorter Columbia Mall Hours in May

While I was on vacation in Orlando last week, a lot happened, including an announcement that GGP would be shortening the hours of the Columbia Mall. The new hours seem to be based on when people actually shop, as opposed to when retailers wish people would shop. It doesn't seem to be being received negatively.

In my mind, this highlights that leveraging too much on retail for Columbia's economic development downtown is a problem. This is particularly true given our current economy and its likely continuation into 2010 - maybe even 2011. That doesn't mean that we should just demolish the mall and replace it with a business park and condos. Still, it is an important lesson to heed when considering the future of downtown.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Turf Valley Referendum Halted on Court Ruling

It appears that the drive to take CB 58 to referendum may wind up never making it to the ballot. It isn't for lack of signatures - Marc Norman's group has submitted over 9000 - but rather because of a ruling made in a Maryland court in December.

Derek Simmonsen has the news:
The review by the county Board of Elections was prompted by a recent Maryland Court of Appeals decision that changes how signatures on petition forms are verified.

Board of Elections Director Betty Nordaas said today that the board went back and reviewed the initial batch of signatures in light of a December Maryland Court of Appeals decision.

The review was suggested by the state attorney general’s office on March 11, according to a letter Nordaas gave to Norman the following day.

The court decision placed tighter restrictions on how signatures should be verified, Nordaas said. Voters now must sign their names on the petition form using the exact name that is on their voter registration; variations on a name will no longer be accepted, she said.

After elections workers invalidated more than 1,000 signatures, Nordaas said the referendum failed because there was no way for Norman’s group to get the 2,500 signatures needed as part of the first batch.
Norman, rightfully so, was shocked at the news. It appears that this review happened after counts on the second batch of signatures was halted due to a lawsuit filed by Greenburg Gibbons. Norman argues that this review is unfair because it is a retroactive review of signatures that Norman claims he acquired using guidance provided by the Board of Elections.

Very curious case, particularly since the precedent came from a case involving the Montgomery County BOE and a lawsuit surrounding "gender identity" as a protected voter class. It seems totally unrelated.

That in mind, it seems like the precedent established in this case would not have been apparent to the Howard County BOE. The state AG's office may have found this after the lawsuit was filed and decided to consider this review before taking a look at the Gibbons lawsuit.

I would be surprised, too, if I were Norman. This is a bizarre development.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Citizens Sue County, Ulman About Land Use Decisions

This story is a little dated, but I wanted to take my time in thinking about it before I decided to make a post about it. The short of it is that Susan Gray, an attorney who has been involved in multiple land-use lawsuits in Howard County, is now the attorney for a multi-party, class action lawsuit against the County and several of its representatives.

Larry Carson reported in the Sun two days ago about it:
A group of development-wary residents have filed a lawsuit against Howard County that claims the government's process of making land-use decisions illegally denies citizens the right to challenge them by referendum.

The suit alleges that the county has violated the county charter for years by making land-use decisions via County Council resolutions and administrative decisions instead of by bill or ordinance. The practice, according to attorney Susan B. Gray and several independent plaintiffs, denies citizens the ability to petition decisions to referendum because only bills can go to voters.

The suit, filed Feb. 17 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, asks authorities to declare a series of Howard laws void, seeks federal supervision of county land-use decisions and requests $10 million in damages.
Among those involved are Frank Martin and Paul Kendall - critics of Turf Valley expansion plans. Philip Rousseau is also involved and was a part of the series of Wegmans lawsuits. That doesn't change how you should view the filing, but it is good to know who is involved.

It's likely that this lawsuit will go nowhere fast. The County is already calling it frivolous. I won't go that far with my comment, but this lawsuit presents moral hazard to me.

The citizens are seeking $10 million and a repeal of all land use decisions in the last three years. They want federal supervision of land-use decisions in the hopes that they could contest any land-use decision and take it to referendum, a la Council Bill 58.

They wouldn't get the money. That's frivolous and not worth discussing. The two critical points are calling for federal supervision of land-use decisions and a reversal of land-use decisions of the last three years. They won't get the latter. So, the thing to focus on is calling for federal supervision of land-use decisions.

This is an interesting claim. It is interesting because many like-minded folks to those behind this suit were up in arms when Executive Ulman sought to move soil conservation decisions to DPZ from Howard Soil Conservation District.

That, and the lawsuit claims, seem to represent a distrust of County officials in anything pertaining to land use. In that case, then, why should the County Council or Planning Board or any County entity be able to make final, binding land-use decisions? If the litigants of the lawsuit want the opportunity to contest any land-use decision, then hypothetically, every land-use decision should be put to referendum. There should be no filter for selective decisions to which a party should not be able to vote.

My question for those behind the suit, or that support it, would be what their ultimate goal is. Is it to have every land-use decision put in the hands of voters and run like a campaign? Is it something else?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New Columbia Blog

Towson University Journalism student Jack Cole has started a blog about Columbia, its people, and its institutions. He covers some very interesting topics and people, and it's well worth your time to check it out.

If you ever wanted to know anything about the Columbia bike guy, you can at Jack's blog.

Bobo, Democrats Go Back on Their Own Tax Vote

The Columbia Flier has the news that a tax bill that Republicans in HoCo's state delegation thought was ok'd by majority Democrats was "reconsidered" and subsequently voted down.

State legislators today reconsidered and rejected a bill they had approved the previous week, sparking accusations from one delegate of partisan retribution.

State Del. Gail Bates, a West Friendship Republican, said the bill, which would have granted some county residents a property tax credit, was rejected today at the delegation meeting as “payback” for the withdrawal of a soil conservation bill favored by Democrats.

“Someone was mad because the soil conservation bill went down,” Bates said.

Bates said she believes that “someone” is County Executive Kenneth Ulman, who, she said, specifically requested the reconsideration.
We don't know if it's Ulman, or even if the accusation is true. Still, it seems awfully fishy to reconsider a bill that seemingly was already done.

Among those that changed their minds was Delegate Liz Bobo. Her explanation? Hilarious.
“I did not vote (on Feb. 11) the way I intended to,” she said. “I thought we were voting on the soil conservation bill. That’s not responsible of me, but it’s the truth.”
You gotta be kidding me. Then Delegate Bobo is basically admitting to any of a few things: (1) a lack of awareness about the bill on which she was voting, (2) a lack of reading comprehension, or the most likely (3) she's issuing payback and needed an excuse for the media. Pitiful.

The party line coming from the Dems is that approving the tax credit would set a "dangerous precedent" to credit taxpayers for services that they don't use. What's dangerous about that?

And preemptively, I will ask to not bring up paying for public schools because I will likely agree with you that paying into that service provides a community benefit of some kind to people that don't necessarily use the schools.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

HoCo Delegation OKs Speed Cameras

I hate speed and red light cameras. I think they do worse for public safety than good. Study after study, and jurisdiction and jurisdiction are moving away from these cameras due to hard data that shows intersections and areas with these cameras become more accident-prone than before they were installed. Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that people in Montgomery County - already living with these ridiculous money making cameras - just slow down in the places where there are cameras, and then speed up once they are out of sight. This causes an inconsistent speed and flow to traffic, which is worse for traffic and safety.

Despite all of that evidence, the Democratic state delegation approved a bill that would allow speed camera use in the County. They voted along party lines - 6 Democrats to 3 Republicans.

Sen. Edward Kasemeyer has this convenient excuse for ok-ing the cameras.

"Fundamentally, the issue is about speed," state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer said. "If you don't speed, you won't have to worry about the cameras."

Awesome. That sounds like what we heard from the Bush Administration when we had our uproar about warrantless wiretaps and scanning machines at airports that were effectively x-ray machines for humans. "If you have nothing to hide, you don't have to worry about it."

Sen. Kasemeyer's claim is preposterous and aims to circumvent due process and other moral problems with this approach.

Out of Hand CB58 Lawsuits

Ok, this is getting ridiculous on both sides. Marc Norman is claiming that he has submitting over 9000 signatures to be reviewed by the Board of Elections. Norman is hoping that the BoE will validate at least 5000 of those and put CB58 on the ballot as a referendum for 2010. Fine.

Now, we have Greenburg Gibbons that is trying to halt the process in court with two separate filings.
Greenberg Gibbons, meanwhile, has filed two court challenges, one calling for a judge to review approval by the Board of Elections of the form of the referendum petitions, the other claiming the signature gathering process violated state and local laws.
So, Gibbons's challenge was met with response from Norman's group, HCCO.

In court papers, the group argues Greenberg Gibbons does not have standing to challenge the board of election's decision.

Under the law, the company and its CEO Brian Gibbons do not qualify as "aggrieved parties" who can challenge the Board of Election's decision approving the format of the petitions, the court papers state. Greenberg Gibbons also failed to give any specifics about how the referendum petitions might have been flawed.

If you'll remember the WCI Condominiums controversy, as Doug Miller does, then you'll see the irony of trying to use the standing debate against the developer.

I'm on record as saying if Norman and his group can get 5000 verified signatures, then we're having a referendum. It is up to the BoE to determine if that happened or not, and if the signatures were gathered in a legal fashion. Do we really need to clog the courts with lawsuits that presume the Board of Elections is incompetent? Do we need lawsuits with no specific claims of aggrievement that challenge the system? No. Let the BoE do its work.

A Different Response to My Letter to the Editor

Today, I saw a reply from a detractor of mine in the Howard County Times regarding my letter the responded to Angela Beltram's response to my letter. This chain is getting awfully long. Anyway, here's Mona's letter:

Two recent letters by the same person [Editor's note: me] convey a misunderstanding of reality and history regarding land-use issues.

When politicians predictably decide in favor of those with extraordinary connections at the expense of citizen taxpayers, the only option residents have (barring spending $1 million to match an incumbent's campaign war chest at election time), the only right we can rely on is that of sending the matter to the voters in the county, i.e., referendum.

What Angela Beltram (in much more detail and gently) said is that county citizens have already tried using the comprehensive planning as the guide.

Nice idea, but in practice it has a) been defeated as an enforceable plan in a Maryland court and b) been circumvented by powerful people with extraordinary connections to our representatives beyond what most taxpayers enjoy.

Those who learn by not repeating mistakes realize that recent history in Howard County supports the claim that residents lack rights rather than lobby, buy votes, exert excessive influence, or step over the line of misrepresentation. We have very little power compared with the most active and moneyed county lobby, and the notion that we should somehow find a basis to decrease our rights by forgoing the right to referendum might be the call that organizes sufficient citizenry to vote out a few offenders.

Mona has been missing the point of both of my letters. Let me be clear - I DO NOT want to suppress or ask anyone to give up their right to take CB58 to referendum. I don't know how many times I can say it, but I will until it sticks.

Rather, I have said that the referendum will not be the be-all-end-all instrument to get better land-use practices in the County. Even if victorious, it would be on in the ongoing, never ending series of battles that land-use challengers would have to fight. Since those have a spotty track record in favor of Mona, Angela, and others, the long-term implications of this win would likely be small for land use. It is up to them if they would like to keep up this approach, but it doesn't seem to be working too well in the grand scheme.

County Council elections do not cost $1 million. Mary Kay Sigaty raised slightly more than $25,000 to run her campaign from 2002 through 2006. Even the County Executive race doesn't require a million dollar war chest. According to the Baltimore Sun, sitting County Executive Ken Ulman only raised approximately $750,000 for his successful run to his seat four years ago.

Also, running a campaign for the referendum is effectively like running a campaign for a candidate. You still need money, resources, time, and effort as you would with helping a candidate get elected. Logic would say that if you could find, support, and elect a candidate - or several - that stand up for land-use in the County, then you would get more bang for your buck that way.

People can't just throw up their hands and give up by citing that rich people have all of the influence. That's a lie. There are two very distinct ways to change policy, candidates, process, etc. Yes, one is money. Political contributions are an investment in a candidate with an expected return. But, the other is equally as powerful. That is the power of organized voices. Two wonderful examples of powerful, sizable national lobbies are AAA and AARP. Thanks to membership drives that provide benefits to their members, both organizations boast member rolls that make their organizations powerful lobbies. They can bring about political change through action alerts or advocacy.

We can do the same thing in Howard County. We should do the same thing in Howard County. The HCCA tries to do that very valiantly. It's not quite large enough to be that influential, but HCCA is very vocal and visible. Growing that organization or one like it would prove helpful in the land-use struggle.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

CA Devising Its Own Vision for Symphony Woods

GGP has made suggestions for what it would do with the Symphony Woods lands as part of its ZRA 113 application. The problem for all involved is that GGP doesn't own the land. The Columbia Association does and it is up to them to do anything or nothing with the land.

GGP's development suggestions have been used against them by critics of their ZRA and GPA. They never should have made them in the first place. I think CA realizes this and is now setting out to see what - if anything - they want to do with the land.

Paumier, a Columbia resident, and his team plan to present some initial ideas to the board in late February and outline several different options for the woods in late March, he said. The public will be able to offer opinions on the various plans, said CA board Chairman Tom O'Connor.

The board has several "desired outcomes" for Symphony Woods, O'Connor said, including restoring the ecosystem, giving the community a gathering place, limiting new roads and buildings, and connecting the woods to the rest of downtown.

While the board has not taken a formal position on General Growth's ideas for Symphony Woods, O'Connor said the company's proposal to build two new cultural buildings in the woods is unpopular with board members.

Among the ideas mentioned were adding an ice skating rink that could convert into a dance center in the summer, improving walking paths and converting portions of the woods into gardens.

Paumier, who is not being paid for his work with CA, said both he and General Growth officials want to see more people use the park but differ on how to reach that goal. He said he does not like the idea of adding large new buildings and underground parking, and is thinking of lower-impact designs.

I'm a big advocate for preserving the rights of landowners. This includes letting CA go through its own process to decide what it wants to do with Symphony Woods. They should not acquiesce to any pressure from GGP on the subject.

Howard County Times Weighs In on Route 40

With letters from several sources on the subject of Council Bill 58, Route 40 Corridor planning, and comprehensive commercial land use planning in the County, the Howard County Times has weighed in on the subject.
[T]he two (recommendations made by the 21 person Route 40 Corridor planning working group) that are arguably the most crucial -- implementing change through comprehensive zoning and the completion of the design manual that will guide development -- aren't done yet. The task force identified both as short-term (i.e. less than two years from the issuance of the recommendations) objectives.

As critical as the timely redevelopment of Columbia's Town Center is to the county's future, it remains a long-term proposition, with much remaining to be hashed out before real progress on that front can be realized.

Officials must not forget the county's other economic center and should work to regain the momentum the task force established four years ago.

This is something that anyone for the CB58 referendum and I can agree to and fight for now.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Response to My Howard County Times Letter

Angela Beltram, former County Council member, responded to my letter to the editor from last week.  If you take a look at the comments to that letter posted here, you'll see several of the same points raised as are in Angela's letter.  I responded to the commenter by thanking them for the well-reasoned response.  I'll say the same here as well.  There's reasonable discourse to be had on the subject.

At the risk of being redundant - probably too late for that - my response is consistent with my position.  We agree that CB58 is reflective of a busted process for managing land use and zoning regulations in the County.  In order to fix a busted process, the citizens have to do one of two big things: (1) somehow lobby the Council and the Executive to implement reform and a countywide commerical master plan (not just Route 40 Corridor, or New Town, etc) or (2) elect other persons into positions of power that desire the same transparency we seem to both seek.

My concern with Mr. Norman and Ms. Beltram's approach is that the referendum is simply too piecemeal to achieve the larger goal.  I understand it is perceived as a valuable weapon when it comes to dealing with one particular piece of legislation, and that is why it is trying to be employed.  

The problem is that this has not been and will not be the only battle waged in the war to have better commerical land use practices in the County.  A successful CB58 referendum would not be a Waterloo for transparency.  It would just become one in a series of battles that Ms. Beltram has tried to lead down the path of referendum with mixed success.  It seems ineffective, then, to keep firing from the same gun if it rarely hits the target.  As a weapon on the subject of land use, the referendum is fairly weak.

If Howard County citizens really want to pursue change in their government, then you change the people that govern and the processes by which they govern.  Since it does not appear that the processes are likely to change given the current people governing, it would seem that the citizens should pursue changing the people that govern first.  

Like I said, I understand why referendum supporters feel like they have just one weapon at their disposal.  The problem is that this perspective is short-sighted and untrue.  

I may be thinking from too holistic of a perspective, though.  Perhaps the supporters of the referendum prefer a piecemeal fighting tactic in the hopes that they can target specific zoning changes that they dislike.  Maybe they would prefer to work within the busted system that they know than risk replacing it with a comprehensive system that may fall short of their expectations and ideals.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Public Testimony on ZRA 113

I attended the Planning Board meeting last week that was to be part two of the hearing on ZRA 113 and the General Plan Amendment proposed by GGP. This was a debacle of a session. The Planning Board started the meeting late, spent much too much time considering a motion from the HCCA that was ultimately shelved until later, and then wasted around two and a half hours asking inane questions of GGP and their representatives.

Remember, in this session, the public was supposed to be able to at least begin comment on the issue. Only four people were able to comment among a likely list of around 70. What a frustrating experience and an example of a busted bureaucracy. No matter where you stand on ZRA 113 and the GPA, you had to be angry about the Planning Board's lack of efficiency and honesty with the public.

Now, they have rescheduled the public testimony until February 5 and I cannot make it due to a prior engagement. So, I have to provide written testimony to have my voice heard. I hope you'll do the same either verbally or by pen. Here are my thoughts, though.

GGP has proposed a 30 year development project for downtown Columbia that would transform this space in a way that has not been seen since ground was first broken on Columbia a little over 40 years ago. They propose a huge undertaking that will mean up to 5000 new residential units, 5 million square feet of office space, hundreds of hotel rooms, and much more retail space.

On the surface, I am for the idea in principle. As a young person - 25 - I moved to Columbia just one year ago because I work here. I moved to downtown because it brought me within walking distance of my job and to the amenities in Town Center. Some amenities are great, including the walking trails, the lakes, and having a mall close by me.

Still, in a city of nearly 100,000 citizens, downtown Columbia is missing many hallmarks of a city. It is missing a grocery store, a real business district, a centerpiece that isn't a shopping mall, and a lakefront that is as vibrant as it could be.

GGP's proposal would allow for these things to happen. It would allow for a street grid that more resembles a city. We would have the opportunity to have a Symphony Woods that - albeit smaller in size - has more utility as a public space. Though there would be a drastic increase in the number of residential units, this would occur over a 30 year period and allow downtown Columbia to unfold as a suburban city leader for the 21st century. Building mixed-use, Green facilities would improve access to commerce and entertainment, and allow many of Columbia's workers to live, work, and play here.

Obviously, this will improve the tax base in Howard County by virtue of attracting employers and shops. Though the money aspect is of no real consequence to me, making Columbia into a more competitive regional employment option would be welcome.

Along with it, though, the GGP plan will bring new stresses to the infrastructure of downtown Columbia in the form of traffic, potentially a new school, and the exchange of undeveloped space for a more city-like feel. The county must hold GGP largely accountable for the financial cost of improving this infrastructure over the 30 year timeframe, and it must begin with phase one.

GGP cannot stall in making their infrastructure commitment real. Retrofitting infrastructure into developed spaces in what caused downtown Columbia to be what it is today. The Rouse planners admitted that they focused on Town Center last in their development. We must avoid that this time and that must be written into any legislation that the County adopts related to these two proposals.

Also, the General Plan Amendment must be enforceable through ties directly into the ZRA and its pursuant legislation. In GGP's original plan - the one it hopes the County adopts - there is not a clear enough connection between the ZRA and the GPA. I would happily take trade offs in the number of affordable units if the County links these two documents in an unmistakable fashion.

Some say that we should not be working on such a plan so quickly. The thing is that we have been working on this plan for years now. The part of the process that is the quickest is the bureaucratic process. Still, the public should have ample time to comment through the Planning Board, to the County Council and to Executive Ulman.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that our commentary will make that much of a dent in their deliberation. But, even if public commentary is a dog and pony show, it is critical that citizens feel like they have been heard. We may not own the land that GGP proposes to develop, but we live right next to much of it. For or against, this plan has a big impact on the future of Columbia and it is the responsibility of this generation of Columbia to ensure that the next generation is in good, well-planned hands.

There has also been uproar that our officials are working with GGP at a time in which their future as an organization and Columbia landowner is very uncertain. It is for that very reason that we must work with GGP now to develop a plan that is suitable for the citizens. If GGP fails and is forced to sell their stake in Columbia, it will either be to (1) an organization without an established relationship with the people of Columbia or (2) a confederation of owners that may have varying interests for the future of downtown.

In our own experience, we have seen the horrors of piecemeal zoning and bureaucracy. We should avoid that at all cost and develop a plan that will ensure a vibrant future downtown Columbia instead of one that could be ruined over time by a planning process that clearly lacks foresight. GGP, on the other hand, has an established relationship with Columbia - albeit much shorter than the one we had with the Rouse Companies. Still, I find it better to plan with a partner for any situation than to try the approach again with another developer whose vision may be more objectionable to this plan's critics. If the appropriate legislative ties are made between the ZRA and the GPA, then we have a plan with which we can work no matter the circumstances.

That plan should help restore Columbia as a leader in suburban city center design in the United States. Again, I look forward to a day when downtown really is a downtown. I await a time when our young people and families want to come downtown for more than just shopping and fireworks. I hope that our economy can be driven more by people that work and live here than by people that shop and commute here. These prospects will make Columbia a better place to live, a Greener place to live, and self-sufficient place to live.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Letter to the Editor in the Howard County Times

I submitted a letter to the Howard County Times regarding CB58 and the drive to referendum. Thanks to the editorial board there, it was published and is available at Explore Howard. If you don't want to make an extra click, the text is below:

The supporters of the drive to take Council Bill 58 to referendum refer to the legislation as a case of "spot zoning." Marc Norman, the leader of the drive, claims that the zoning regulation amendment submitted by Greenburg Gibbons was not scrutinized enough by the Planning Board and County Council. He wants the voters to decide the fate of the ZRA already approved unanimously by the County Council.

What Mr. Norman fails to see is that he is advocating an approach no better than "spot zoning." He is simply engaging in "spot advocacy." He and his group -- of unknown membership -- are seeking to take down one particular zoning amendment request rather than taking a better, broader approach.

Unlike on the residential side, Howard County lacks a commercial square-footage and zoning plan. It is easy for spot zoning to occur in such an environment. Also, the bureaucratic processes by which zoning can be changed seem to favor developers. The combined result is suburban commercial sprawl that grows alongside fairly well-planned residential development. This cannot continue.

To change busted processes and laws, though, requires a broader campaign to change the system in which developers operate with the county. Mr. Norman and his group would be better served by targeting countywide reforms on how zoning regulations are amended. His group should compel the county to develop a commercial master plan and subsequent change processes that are open to public comment.

Howard County residents want responsibly planned development. They do not seek to quell development on a case-by-case basis.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gibbons Has Filed Court Appeal to Referendum Process

Marc Norman's comments in the Howard County Times make me wonder about the role of sensationalism in his efforts.

"This effort on behalf of the developer we believe is clearly meant to intimidate, impede and deter the citizens' rights and movement toward referendum," Norman said.

Intimidate? Over a grocery store's square footage? You gotta be kidding me.

Gibbons did file a legal challenge to the current threshold for petition signatures. Really, they shouldn't be doing that now. When you begin any game, you begin knowing what the rules are when you start and that you can't change them during the game when it is convenient. Otherwise, Chris Webber's phantom timeout in the National Championship game against North Carolina could have been allowed.

This is the kind of ridiculousness that gets in the way of real resolutions to tough problems.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mike Huckabee in Esquire

Mike Huckabee was profiled in this month's Esquire magazine during his 56 city book tour. While I disagree vehemently with Huckabee's social views, I can't help but find his approach appealing and different.

Anyway, reading the last part of the piece lent me two nuggets from him that I think is all too appropriate for some of the political chatter going on in Howard County.

First, on hypocrisy on Wall Street:
"I mean, I just want to scream," he says, "especially at these guys at the National Review, The Wall Street Journal, who are supposed to be these bastions of conservatism. And how can they call Barack Obama a socialist when everything they're doing in economic and monetary policy is classic socialism? I find it so hypocritical. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a terrible mistake to revert back to welfare, because what Democrats are doing is pushing welfare for all people who are working individually, while you've got people on the Republican side pushing welfare for the highest CEOs in the wealthiest corporations in America. It's insane."
And, then, on letting your detractors make your case for you by using Bill Maher's appearance on his show as an example:
"My view was that letting Bill Maher talk did more to advance my argument than I would have done by arguing with him," Huckabee says. "He said people who are spiritual have a neurological disorder. And I said, Okay, let's take that where it would go. Are Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, in your view, mentally ill? Well, he had already put himself in that box, so he basically had to say yes, and I didn't argue with him because I thought, Bill Maher has just alienated 99.99 percent of the world's population."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Some Critical CB58 Documents

I got word through HoCo Free Market about Greensburg Gibbons' - a website that basically shares their message directly with the people of Howard County about their plans for Turf Valley Town Center.

While the idea may well be a bad PR move (seriously, the developer vs. citizens dynamic is a no win for Gibbons), I did find a couple of documents of interest. Namely, I wanted to provide the document that the County Council wrote to citizens in an effort to clarify what CB58 does and does not do. It clears up a lot of procedural and legislative misinformation being spread by commenters on this blog, other websites, and in petition drives. It should be read.

Also, we had a commenter on here who said that Greenburg Gibbons did not detail their campaign contributions to council members. Per the law and the ZRA petition form, they don't have to. Check it out yourself.

As I have said before, taking your case to the people is one thing. Providing them with misinformation and out-and-out lies is another. That goes for both sides.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Healthy Howard Might Need A New Direction

Healthy Howard, a nonprofit organization that is funded by the HoCo government to the tune of $500,000, is not achieving its goal of signing up 2200 people for subsidized access to health insurance. So far, the program has signed up around 65 people among over 1100 applicants to the program. This is mainly due to the fact that the applicants unwittingly qualify for state and federal programs that do the same thing as Healthy Howard.

To save their face, relevance, and funding, the county is working on Healthy Howard's behalf to appeal to five different groups of people that they think may qualify for the program - and therefore get them to some kind of reasonable roll of participants.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, the county health officer, admitted that if participation remains low after this year that it may be time to rethink the program. Absolutely right and I'm happy to see that he doesn't want to just blow the $500K for the sake of a program that may not work.

While access to health care insurance is an important public health issue, it's really just the tip of the iceburg. The county could better use that $500,000 to address other public health issues, such as incentivizing general practice doctors, encouraging a move to patient-accessible electonic health records, or driving down the cost of medical malpractice insurance.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Let's Discuss the Players in CB58

I know that CB58 has been passed. I know that HCCA finally has a public position on the referendum, after much debate. And I now know that the HoCo Chamber of Commerce wants the signature threshold for petitions to be increased from the measly 5000 that it is today (in a county of about 300,000 people).

With the new entry into the fray, let's talk about the players in this game.

On one side, we have businesses and developers that want as little restrictions as is possible over where they want to conduct business. And businesses with models that command stores with huge square footage want to be able to build and operate wherever. That's where the HCCOB comes into play. They feel that our elected officials in the County Council and the HoCo Planning Board are supposed to be a check on those desires. Also, they think that a referendum (passed or not, I guess) would send a bad signal to businesses that want to come here. From the number of chain stores in Columbia and HoCo, that's not likely.

Of course, there's also the development company Greenburg Gibbons Commercial that submitted the ZRA so that their proposed Turf Valley Town Center could have a 55000 sq ft zoning cap. They're saying that no shopping center with an anchor supermarket of less than that amount could survive today. That's a load of BS because Trader Joe's and Whole Foods do very well for themselves in areas closer to 20000 square feet. They may have caught less flack for making that claim and just coming out to say that they want a grocery store up to three times the size allowed now. I'm not sure how they could shed the common label applied to developers as being profit-driven (they are) and having elected officials in their back pocket (they do a lot of lobbying, contributing, and attending County open meetings with pretty drawings and charts).

We also have the Marc Norman-led Howard County Citizens for Open Government. In the interest of openness (and irony), he won't reveal to anyone how many people comprise his organization. He thinks that the planned shopping center would hurt other businesses and increase traffic into Turf Valley. I'd definitely need to see studies on that to prove the concept instead of allegations of lack of foresight and officials' improprieties with developers.

Norman has the backing of HCCA. He also, conveniently, has the backing of labor unions that represent workers at union shops of Giant and Safeway. They oppose Wegman's (160,000 square feet?!) and Harris Teeters popping up in the county because they're not union shops.

Basically, everyone has made their own not-so-savvy moves in this mess. What this boils down to is whether or not the shopping center will make sense for Turf Valley and the immediate surrounding area in terms of commerce, convenience, and urban planning. It has nothing to do with enfranchisement of voters. It has nothing to do with adding union jobs. It has nothing to do with sending signals to big corporations. The issue is as simple as it really sounds.

Does the already passed regulation change make sense in terms of those three criteria? Stop the sideshow and make that call for yourself. If you don't think so, then sign the petition. If you have an ulterior motive or think that it does make sense, then don't. And we'll see how it hashes out by February.