Recreation bats first in Columbia's politics Top issue: In unincorporated Columbia, with its myriad leisure facilities, recreation dominates civic debate.

November 24, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,SUN STAFF

In Columbia, drinking and driving takes on a whole new meaning.

With the granting of a liquor license Nov. 6 to Fairway Hills, the community's newest golf course, some angry neighbors living along its fairways fear tipsy golfers will drive errant shots into their back yards -- one of many concerns they have raised in their long battle against the course.

The festering golf course dispute typifies how politics in this unincorporated community of 82,000 residents -- where nearly one of every two households has a sports club membership and bike paths traverse the landscape -- often boils down to spats about recreation.

Columbia essentially is run by the Columbia Council (CA), which directs the Columbia Association, a huge homeowners group that manages its recreational facilities and common land. With no city government to focus debate on more typical municipal concerns -- garbage removal or public safety -- recreation serves as a major source of pride and conflict.

Columbia resident Lewis Lorton says many residents view the 28-year-old new town as a place where abundant recreational opportunities are not a privilege but a right.

"About the only thing you can unite people behind is more sports facilities," says Mr. Lorton, who served on a committee seeking improvements at the association's 23 outdoor swimming pools. "This is what people do. They have nothing else big to identify Columbia with except their activity, their leisure. We live in a lotus land, not that that's bad."

Columbia often expresses its own brand of NIMBYism -- the "Not In My Back Yard" syndrome -- in reaction to proposals for new recreational facilities and policies. Residents needn't worry about landfills, prisons or heavy industry in their planned town. Instead, they fret over golf courses and "family fun" centers. In recent years, recreation flaps stirring Columbians' passions have included:

* A fight last summer over the right to fish from boats on Wilde Lake, where lakeside homeowners accused anglers of voyeurism and creating nuisances.

* A long struggle over placement of a children's playground near homes in a new, upscale village where privacy is paramount.

* A revolt in Hickory Ridge village over plans for a family amusement center with batting cages and miniature golf. Largely because of that dispute, officials say, the Columbia councilman representing Hickory Ridge was voted out of office in 1992 -- one of the rare times an incumbent has lost in Columbia's elections.

* A community uprising by parents with children against a proposal to designate adult-only hours at one neighborhood swimming pool. A pool study committee's subsequent recommendation to convert two pools to adult-only use to meet demand and generate more income was quietly dismissed by the council.

* The developing Kendall Ridge neighborhood's eight-year campaign to build a $1 million pool in Long Reach village -- the village's fourth and one of two new Columbia pools that opened this year -- despite concern that the 21 existing pools were losing more than $1 million annually. After several rejections of the proposal, the Columbia Council bowed to community pressure and what Councilman Michael Rethman calls Columbia's "lore of having a pool in every neighborhood."

Some say it is inevitable that community debate focuses on recreation, noting that the association -- which imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to manage the community's amenities -- originally was named the Columbia Parks and Recreation Association.

"That's what the Columbia Association does," says Virginia H. Scott, a golf course opponent whose challenge of Fairway Hills' construction permits forced the association into a protracted state hearing. "If there's a problem, it tends to occur when CA staff gets this gleam in their eye -- 'Ah, there's a golf course, there's a family fun center' -- instead of an open space area of passive enjoyment for all residents," she says.

But the association's director of recreational facilities, Robert Goldman, says his goal is to involve as many residents in activities as possible -- at an affordable price that keeps the association on solid financial ground.

"I may be on the hot spot, but that's what I'm doing," says Mr. Goldman, whose division accounts for 44 percent of the association's $33.2 million budget. "People may not like it in their neighborhood and some [proposals] might be rejected."

Wilde Lake resident Stuart Sklar knows that conflicts arise even over Columbia's vaunted "open space" -- the lakes, paths and woods that make up about one-quarter of Columbia's land -- simply because the areas are so close to residences.

He led a successful fight last summer to reverse a policy that closed half of Wilde Lake to fishing from boats -- a rule imposed because some anglers' behavior disturbed nearby homeowners. Police have been summoned to warn Mr. Sklar when his boat crossed into forbidden waters, and residents accused him of willfully violating regulations. After four months of arguing, Mr. Sklar won the right to fish from his boat on Wilde Lake, but the council's ban on fishing from one shoreline shadowed by condominiums remains. And Mr. Sklar says he learned something about the politics of recreation in Columbia: "I didn't expect the passion and anger to be directed toward me in as personal a manner as it was."

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