A year of stores, smoking, garbage Judges' nasty race and death of Rouse also made headlines

December 29, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Dan Morse and Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.

For most Howard County residents, 1996 will be remembered for three things: shopping, smoking and garbage.

It was a year in which Columbia's village centers fought a mostly losing battle against megastores, smokers were told to butt out of restaurants and homeowners had to ante up for their garbage.

It also was a year in which candidates in the county's nasty Circuit Court race each were willing to dig into their pockets and spend more than half of the job's yearly $93,500 salary to finance their campaigns.

As Columbia mourned the death of its founder, James W. Rouse, in April, his dream of neighborhoods surrounding thriving village centers appeared to be on shaky ground. Who would have thought when Columbia was founded 30 years ago that residents would flock to warehouse-sized "big box" stores lined up like battleships along Columbia's borders?

Even the desire to shop for cars on Sunday soon will be satisfied by the used-car superstore CarMax, thanks to the repeal in the spring of blue laws banning Sunday auto sales in Howard.

Only one proposed megastore hit rocky ground -- Total Beverage, a beer-and-wine monster the size of an ice rink. Of course, Total Beverage had to contend with a powerful, odd, two-headed enemy when its application for a county sales license was opposed by small liquor stores and a Baptist church.

And in the final weeks of the year, the Rouse Co. announced a coup in its effort to woo shoppers back to Columbia's Town Center. The popular Nordstrom department store chain is expected to open at The Mall in Columbia by 2000.

Having a mall as its downtown is part of what makes Columbia Columbia. So does the Columbia Association (CA), the $40 million private corporation that manages the planned community. That strange form of governance, though, seems OK with many residents, as evidenced by the failure to turn Columbia into the state's second-largest city.

The small group pushing for incorporation simply disbanded for lack of interest.

No smoking

The only group that seemed to struggle more than Columbia's village centers this year was smokers. Tobacco users were shut out of Howard restaurants in July when the strictest smoking law in the state went into effect.

The new rules prohibit smoking in restaurants except in separately ventilated, enclosed bar areas, forcing most of the county's 300 restaurants to eliminate smoking, exploit loopholes or hire a high-priced tobacco lobbyist to fight the new rules.

Another restrictive rule enacted in Howard County this year had county homeowners reaching deeper into their pockets to pay for something they throw away: garbage.

The county imposed a $125 annual trash fee and cut by half the amount of garbage homeowners may put out, creating the most restrictive limit in the Baltimore area.

The year also saw candidates for the county's most esteemed judicial positions talking trash -- about one another. The bitter campaign for two circuit judgeships divided county lawyers and politicians and ended with the ouster of Howard's first African-American judge.

Yet, when it came time for one of the winners, Lenore R. Gelfman, to be sworn in, she did all she could to keep the ceremony secret, holding it early the day after Thanksgiving. One circuit judge said he didn't even find out about the ceremony until he arrived at the courthouse -- after it was over.

In the realm of the County Council, members C. Vernon Gray and Charles C. Feaga got into scraps with the county Ethics Commission but emerged unscathed. Gray, a Democrat, also took his lumps when council Republicans examined and criticized his cellular telephone spending and expense account.

Will he run?

At the end of 1996, observers of County Executive Charles I. Ecker were still wondering whether the Republican would run for governor in 1998.

Ecker seemed to be scratching his head over how to ease traffic problems in east Columbia -- particularly at the troublesome intersection of Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway.

At one point this year, Ecker's solution would have given Howard a place in the annals of state transportation history by making it Maryland's first county to adopt a "dispersed movement" intersection. But no one understood what it meant -- much less how it worked -- so it was rejected.

For those who still needed proof that the wheels of county government turn slowly -- particularly when influenced by powerful lawyers -- they should look at the Board of Appeals. It took the board 10 months to support Kingdon Gould Jr.'s request to open a quarry in Jessup.

Meanwhile, Route 100 -- decades in the making -- opened from Interstate 95 to Interstate 97, providing Howard commuters with an $85 million gateway to Anne Arundel County and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport area. By 1999, Route 100 is scheduled to reach U.S. 29.

Drivers headed to Main Street in Ellicott City still were looking for a place to park -- unless they were willing to feed the new parking meters and keep their visits to less than an hour.

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