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.