Pushing limits in Columbia Forum urges change, appeals to civic pride

September 20, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

For Columbia residents, the pioneering isn't over yet.

At least not if Morris Keeton and the rest of his Columbia watchdog group, the Columbia Forum, successfully prod enough residents of the community, which has gained national recognition, to engage in a bit more trailblazing.

Mr. Keeton and company hope to rouse residents with a report the non-profit group compiled to identify problems and propose solutions for the community.

The report, expected to be 50 to 60 pages, will outline an agenda for improving life in Columbia and the county. It is due out in the first week of October.

"This is an effort to motivate citizens to become involved in the process of shaping what their community will become," says Mr. Keeton, president of the Forum.

Columbia residents who muse what a wonderful place the community would be if the so-called "downtown" were not solely The Mall are among the people the report hopes to spur into action. Mr. Keeton hopes that county parents who have found the racial strife bubbling in some public schools worrisome will find the report an invitation to help shape a solution.

Future downtown development in Columbia and racial harmony are just two of 12 pressing issues the report will address. They include: environment, governance, health, housing, sense of community, transportation, the arts, communications, cultural and religious diversity, downtown, economic development, and education.

"Needless to say, some of these areas are much broader than just Columbia -- transportation and education for instance," said Dave Tucker, the Forum's executive director and author of the report. "Columbia is at the very center of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. With this report we're saying we can become a model for improvement in the region."

Among the more perplexing of the issues faced by the numerous committees that worked on gathering citizens' and others' ideas for solutions was the question of how Columbia should be governed in the future. Some community affairs, such as recreational amenities, a small public bus system and homeowner association regulations, are managed by the Columbia Association. The association operates, more or less, like a large homeowners association.

But most major public services for Columbia residents -- police,fire and schools -- are managed by county government.

"Virtually no one of the Forum board thinks Columbia should become an incorporated municipality," said Mr. Keeton. "But there is a consensus that the current governance system needs to be changed."

The Columbia Association's public governance functions and its homeowners association functions "are no longer legally compatible," said Mr. Keeton. "The issue is what structure would give Columbia the best arrangement for dealing with these competing functions."

Among the solutions expected to be debated at the conference: revamping the Columbia Association and shifting Columbia into a special tax district, a tick shy of becoming a separate municipality.

The report's recommendations for creating more affordable housing, a growing problem for some employers in the county because it's meant a dearth of workers, is also expected to stir debate.

"This is an issue affecting economic development in the county, particularly retailers who rely on paying relatively low wages," said Mr. Keeton.

The report, he said, will propose numerous recommendations to address the issue, including one that would require developers building apartments, condominiums and other multifamily housing to make a percentage of those homes affordable to low- and moderate-wage earners. County government would have to adjust zoning regulations to allow developers of such projects to increase their density under that proposal.

On the issue of downtown development in Columbia, the drafters of the report hope the debate will prod The Rouse Co., the sole owner of undeveloped land in the area, to draft plans for future downtown projects that bring a sense of identity to the area and improve pedestrian accessibility.

The report will also call on Rouse to open up to residents itsprocess of deciding uses and designs for projects on undeveloped land in the downtown area.

The Rouse Co., Mr. Keeton said, has agreed in discussions with the Forum to provide citizens with some details of what it plans for downtown projects. But it does not want to be held to releasing either specific or conceptual architectural drawings.

Residents, elected officials and civic leaders will gather Oct. 25 at a half-day conference at Atholton High School, dubbed "Landfall," todebate the report and come to a consensus on the specifics of how to address the issues. Columbia Forum members are hoping the conferance attracts hundreds.

"Some of the recommendations will be fairly controversial," said Mr. Tucker. "People have to remember this is all subject to change as they see fit. This is not the Forum's agenda. It has to be the people's agenda. If people want a better quality of life, a better community, they have to get involved with making it happen."

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