Incorporation plan bad idea, Rouse says

October 19, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Columbia's founding father, James W. Rouse, said yesterday that it would be a bad idea to incorporate Columbia because that would create an unneeded layer of government, divide the planned town from Howard County and likely increase residents' taxes.

In a rare interview at his Enterprise Foundation office in Columbia, Mr. Rouse directly responded for the first time in detail to the effort of an independent citizens' coalition to turn the 27-year-old planned community into Maryland's second- largest city.

The coalition, citing the need for more accountability and efficiency in Columbia's management, has launched a petition drive to allow residents to decide in a referendum whether to incorporate. The 80,000-resident community now is run by a huge, nonprofit homeowners association.

"Columbia was my dream, but now it's got to be the dream of the people in Columbia," said Mr. Rouse, 80. "I'll be very satisfied with what the people in Columbia decide, but I'll be surprised if they decide to do this.

"I think it's ill-considered."

Mr. Rouse said the Rouse Co. considered making Columbia a city in the mid-1960s when it planned the community, but abandoned the idea as "undesirable."

Columbia's current system is a "remarkable contribution to the way to organize government in the expansion of cities," he said, noting that many major cities are ringed by an unworkable proliferation of incorporated suburbs.

The private Columbia Association collects an annual levy from Columbia residents to manage parklands, recreational facilities and community programs. Ten community homeowner boards provide more opportunity for residents to express concerns and become involved than would a formal city government, Mr. Rouse said.

"I don't see how a much more open or responsive order of government could be organized than the way it is here," he said.

He acknowledged that perhaps some changes in Columbia's governance structure might be in order, but he added firmly: "I'm really astonished [Columbia] has worked out as well as it has."

Mr. Rouse attributed this to grueling planning sessions in which a group of 14 sociologists, educators, doctors, planners and other professionals from around the nation convened in 1963 at the invitation of the Rouse Co. to attempt to design a more liveable community than the typical sprawling suburb.

After several disappointing sessions contemplating problems that seemed insurmountable, Mr. Rouse said one participant recommended that the focus should be "to nourish love."

"The tone changed after that," he said.

The recent petition drive for incorporation "introduces a new level of concern," said Mr. Rouse. A city government would be "more remote from the people than the Columbia Association is," he said. "I think it would be much more difficult to control."

But leaders of the petition drive contend that the association is unresponsive to residents and lacks accountability.

The "new town" of 80,000 residents has outgrown the association, they say. Some also believe the community's services could be delivered cheaper to residents by a formal city government.

Mr. Rouse said those seeking changes are "good people. They have the right to do it. But in this case, I think they will not reduce the cost of government. They will in fact increase it."

Last night, James V. Clark, leader of the citizens' coalition that's launched the incorporation drive, responded to Mr. Rouse's comments by saying: "He's consistent. Overall, I think it's

healthy that the question of governance is getting this type of attention.

"His timing is significant," Mr. Clark said, "because we're out in the streets with the petition, because it's a hot item. . . . It's '' giving people the opportunity to agree with Jim Rouse. That's healthy."

Despite his views against incorporation, Mr. Rouse said, he will not take an active role in opposing the petition drive for a referendum.

Mr. Rouse has long been retired from the company that bears his name. "I don't have anything to do with the operation of Columbia now, or with the operation of The Rouse Co.," he said. "I live here, that's about all. And my voice should not be an important one."

Also during yesterday's interview, he criticized Columbia residents living in a still developing area of the community for opposing a proposal to build affordable townhouses for families with annual incomes ranging from about $15,000 to $40,000. Columbia was planned as a community that would be open to people of all races and economic levels, Mr. Rouse said.

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