The activists striving to turn Columbia into Maryland's second-largest city are trying to renew public interest in their foundering 2-year-old campaign.
Despite failing to gain much public support for their incorporation drive, the Columbia Municipal League has decided to commission a University of Maryland study to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of turning the roughly 80,000-resident community into a city.
At a news conference last night to announce the study, league members said the $5,500 analysis -- financed by private donors they would not identify -- will be the first objective look at incorporation. The league, which lacks $1,500 for the study, still is collecting donations.
"There have been other studies, but the [Columbia Association] paid for those," said Neil Noble, speaking to a handful of people gathered at the east branch of the Howard County library. "They got the answers they expected."
The study should be completed by early next year.
Though the mood in the room was upbeat -- there were birthday hats and a cake to honor the league's second birthday -- members acknowledge that their drive began to founder soon after it was launched in the fall of 1994.
"I bought onto this thinking in a year we'd have 10,000 signatures," said league President James V. Clark, referring to the amount needed to call for a referendum. "We've started our third year and we have 3,600. There's a lot of apathy out there."
Said spokesman Chuck Rees: "We are trying to get back on track. We do think this study will get us back into the public eye."
The incorporation movement provoked widespread opposition -- from Columbia Council members, Howard County Council members and the late James W. Rouse, Columbia's founder.
At one point, officials of UM's Institute for Governmental Service almost declined to conduct the study because the majority of the County Council was opposed to incorporation.
But league members say they are buoyed by the ouster of three incumbent Columbia Council members in the new town's recent elections, saying the voting shows that Columbia residents are looking for a change.
Others disagree. For David Berson, the Columbia Council representative from River Hill, the incorporation issue is all but dead.
"I think there's a good reason for why it was so quiet for so long," Berson said. "It's an issue that most people in Columbia find not to be in their best interest."
Still, some say the study -- which the league unsuccessfully asked the Columbia Council to fund -- will provide concrete answers to many issues raised by the incorporation effort.
While noting his opposition to incorporating Columbia, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday of the study: "I think it will answer questions and then people can base their opinions on facts."
The study will examine the economic feasibility and legal issues behind incorporation, said Vic Tervala, the consultant who will conduct it.
Tervala said the incorporation scenario is unusual. In most cases, communities want to incorporate to gain control of planning and zoning issues and of their police and fire services. But, in this case, the study will focus only on the feasibility of creating a municipal body without taking over many key county services, he said.
Specifically, the study will look at the projected revenues for a Columbia municipality. And it will examine whether the city or the Columbia Association -- the huge homeowners association that manages parklands and recreational facilities -- should oversee the open spaces in the county, Noble said.
The association imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to help pay for recreational facilities, community services and parkland maintenance. The association is directed by the the 10-member Columbia Council.
Rees said the league does not immediately want to provide police and fire services and plans to pay the county to continue to provide them. Later, residents may decide to take on those responsibilities, Rees said.
Incorporation proponents argue that a municipal government would be more open and "democratic" than the current system. The liens that property owners pay the Columbia Association annually -- ranging from about $200 to more than $2,000 -- would become tax deductible if the area became a city, supporters say.
But opponents charge that becoming incorporated would mean
higher taxes in the long run and would foster division with Howard County.
"Those of us who were here in the early days of Columbia worked very hard to be accepted by Howard County," said May Ruth Seidel, co-founder of Columbians for Howard County, a group founded to oppose the incorporation drive. "We did a lot to avoid divisiveness."
Pub Date: 5/15/96