Realtors' pitch spurs CA protest 'No CPRA' called insult to Columbians

April 11, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The tiny sales pitch sprinkled throughout Columbia-area real estate ads seems harmless enough: "No CPRA."

But as Columbia's huge homeowners association showed last night, they're fighting words -- or, at the least, pointed-letter-writing words.

The Columbia Association's board voted to send a letter to local real estate agents to ask them to ditch the acronym, which stands for Columbia Park and Recreation Association. Agents use it to lure buyers to neighboring subdivisions where they don't pay annual property liens to CA.

The liens are essentially a Columbia property tax, in addition to the county property tax paid by all Howard County homeowners.

The board says the "No CPRA" phrase, which agents also have been known to hang from for-sale signs in front yards, is misleading because it incorrectly implies Columbia residents don't receive benefits from their liens.

The letter is expected to be mailed by the end of the month. How it is received remains to be seen. Individual agents operate fairly independently of their parent companies.

"I think they're trying to control something they can't control," said Pam Stevens of Long & Foster Realtors' Columbia office. "But you can't blame them for trying."

The CPRA issue also cuts to the core of larger debates among CA's 10 board members:

Exactly what do homeowners get for the hundreds of dollars they pay every year to CA?

Does CA make it too easy for nonlien-payers to use CA's coveted recreation facilities?

Leading the letter-writing effort is board chairman Mike Rethman of Hickory Ridge, who said the no-CPRA pitch is misleading to customers and insulting to Columbians.

(The owner of a $180,000 house in Columbia pays $657 a year to VTC CA; the owner of a $300,000 house in Columbia pays $1,095.)

Lien payers, Rethman stated in the letter, get parks, lakes, large discounts at recreational facilities and citywide enforcement of architectural standards, among other benefits.

"Bottom line is that the reason almost anyone wants to live in greater Columbia is because of Columbia -- a Columbia that thrives because of those who pay the assessment," the letter said.

"We strive to be good neighbors with everyone," Rethman added in an interview. "We'd like that reciprocated."

Underlying the CPRA debate are the Columbia Association's financial strategies.

A faction on the board says CA has simply made it too affordable for nonlien payers to use CA recreation facilities. They point to the $6 million dollar health club CA is building on the western fringe of Columbia in the River Hill village.

"It makes it very easy for people to live just outside of Columbia and use the facility," said board member Alex Hekimian of Oakland Mills. He would like to raise rates for out-of-towners.

According to next year's rate structures, though, lien payers will pay about half of what nonlien payers pay in recreation fees.

A lien-paying family will pay $576 a year to use CA's recreation facilities. A nonlien-paying family will pay $1,050. To just use Columbia's swimming pools, lien payers must pay $252 while nonlien payers will pay $504.

Raising prices for out-of-towners would actually hurt Columbia lien payers, according to a majority of the board. The explanation: Too many out-of-towners would drop their memberships, CA would lose money and would have to charge lien payers more to use facilities.

"It makes no sense to say, 'Yeah, we kicked them out, but it's going to cost us 50 percent more,'" Rethman said.

Regardless of the recreation facility prices, it's certainly no secret that nonlien payers can use Columbia's parks, lakes or 77 miles of pedestrian pathways for free.

All this is hardly lost on real estate agents.

"Enjoy all the advantages of Columbia without the additional expenses," promises an advertisement for the new Clarks Glen subdivision near River Hill.

Just north of Columbia, real estate agent Shawn Fortney used a large "No CPRA Fees!" phrase in his ads for $140,000 condominiums in Columbia Park.

"As a sales guy, I can say, 'We're in Columbia here, but you don't have CPRA. That's a plus," Fortney said. "It was just icing on the cake."

He understands CA's position about the phrase, but added: "I work for the builder. He doesn't want me doing what's politically correct for Columbia. He wants me doing what's best for his pocketbook."

Other real estate agents agreed -- even those who tout CA's wide array of recreation and service offerings.

One agent, who asked not to be named, put it this way: When he's selling a house outside of Columbia, he often highlights the lack of the lien.

"We have people who come to us and say, 'We want to live near Columbia, but we don't want to pay the Columbia tax,' " he said.

When he's selling a house in Columbia, though, the agent stresses the good deals on recreation facilities. "Quite frankly," he said, "it's an incredible bargain."

Also at last night's meeting, the CA board delayed action on a resolution asking the Rouse Co. -- Columbia's developer -- to build more affordable housing in its pricey new River Hill village. The board has indicated it wants a range of housing there similar to the rest of Columbia.

Pub Date: 4/11/97

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