Municipal League plans to disband Treasurer says indifference killed incorporation drive

November 20, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The 2-year-old effort to incorporate Columbia is dead.

Incorporation activist Neil Noble said yesterday that the fledging Columbia Municipal League is disbanding. With its demise goes the most outspoken voice for turning the country's largest unincorporated planned community into a city.

"Indifference killed us," said Noble, treasurer of the incorporation group. "Because Columbia is such a desirable place to live, nobody gives a damn."

Noble and others in the Columbia Municipal League -- fed up with what they see as the Rouse Co.'s corporate direction of Columbia -- had been collecting signatures from Howard County residents for more than two years.

Their petition was aimed at placing the option of incorporation on a countywide election ballot. Noble said the group collected about 3,700 of the 8,000 signatures needed to bring the issue before the Howard County Council to request a referendum.

"It is very painful to admit to a failing," he said. "I feel that an apology needs to be extended to the several thousand people who signed our petitions for a referendum election."

Those who oppose incorporation -- essentially the entire power structure of the county -- reacted favorably to the news yesterday.

"It's an idea whose time has not come and will never come," said Darrel E. Drown, Republican chairman of the County Council, which would have had to approve a referendum on incorporation.

Drown and other county officials said Columbia residents -- who receive all essential government services from the county -- do not want another level of government.

At the Rouse Co., which has made hundreds of millions of dollars developing Columbia, Senior Vice President Al Scavo said the incorporation movement never seemed to gather much support. "I don't think it made a lot of sense," he said.

Scavo stressed that he was offering his personal opinion, not Rouse's position: "We stayed out of it, corporately."

But Noble and other activists said Rouse -- joined by the Columbia Association (CA), the large homeowners' association that grew out of Rouse's development of Columbia -- worked together to discredit the incorporation argument.

Noble said Rouse officials are worried that a municipal government could stop or control their final stages of developing Columbia. "Those apartments that Rouse wants to build near Merriweather Post Pavilion [in Columbia's Town Center], they'd be scuttled. Forget about it," Noble said. In January of last year, when the incorporation movement was peaking, Rouse Co. founder James W. Rouse, then 80, fiercely debated the issue on National Public Radio's "Diane Rehm Show" with a Columbia rabbi, Martin Siegel, then a spokesman for the Municipal League.

Rouse touted CA's management of Columbia. "This is a highly efficient government," he said during the radio show.

At the time, incorporation activists cast Rouse's appearance on the radio show as evidence that the Rouse Co. and other area developers had deep self-interests at stake in the issue and were prepared to work hard to prevent Columbia from becoming a city.

But Scavo said that James Rouse was not speaking for the company, which he had left more than 15 years ago. Of the radio appearance, Scavo said, "We didn't even know he was going to do that."

Yesterday, Siegel said that CA and Rouse cooperated to discredit the incorporation movement. In an interview a month ago, he said of the Rouse Co.: "They are very good at projecting their own self-interest into God's will."

Pam Mack, a spokeswoman for CA, said the homeowners' organization has never campaigned against incorporation -- even though top CA officials are personally opposed to it.

When asked about the Municipal League's failed efforts, she said: "It demonstrates that the community support [for incorporation] is just not there."

With the disbanding of the Columbia Municipal League -- which in the end had only about six active members -- also comes the termination of a detailed incorporation study by University of Maryland experts.

Earlier this year, the Municipal League had agreed to fund a $4,000 study of the financial and governmental impact of incorporation by the University of Maryland's Institute for Governmental Service.

But, apparently unhappy with the initial findings of the study, the league stopped the study within the last month after a $2,000 investment.

"We were in the middle of it when the plug was pulled," said the institute's Victor Tervala.

Tervala and Municipal League officials declined to release the early parts of the study.

Noble said Tervala and his assistants found problems with the wording of the league's incorporation petition -- and were preparing to conclude that the signatures that had been collected were invalid.

But Tervala said yesterday that was not the case. "There were general concerns about the petition," he said. "But it was a salvageable petition."

Tervala said incorporation will keep "raising its head" in Columbia in the years to come, but will succeed only if it is supported by CA -- because the homeowners' association "controls so much of what goes on in Columbia."

Tervala said he held no strong opinions for or against incorporation.

Howard County, in general, does a good job at providing necessary services to Columbia, he said, but certain municipal "tailor-made" services such as a Columbia police force may have some appeal.

"There's sort of yins and yangs here," he said.

Noble said the the Columbia Municipal League raised about $5,000, $4,000 of which came from a non-Columbia resident he declined to identify. He said the group returned $1,900 to that donor, spent $2,000 on the initial study and spent the rest primarily on fliers, hats, bumper stickers and other pro-incorporation paraphernalia.

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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