To its foes, Columbia is mistake by the lake


October 19, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

LIKE RESIDENTS of North Laurel, I'm looking forward to zoning board hearings on the Rouse Co.'s plan to build a new community along the banks of Interstate 95.

The discussion started long ago, but the zoning board hearing is the final phase of the process in this contentious matter.

Residents have some legitimate concerns, mainly the prospect of overcrowded schools and jammed roads. But not all their criticisms are valid.

No 'mini-Columbia'

The most unfair remarks are the disparaging ones about Columbia. Some North Laurel residents complain that they don't want to live in a "mini-Columbia."

Rouse, which developed Columbia, also is the architect of the 522-acre Key property, which straddles I-95, south of Gorman Road.

Columbia is not for everyone. Some homebuyers and renters just don't want to settle down in a huge mixed-use center founded as an open community, with lots of preserved open space, bike paths, man-made lakes and '60s-style idealism.

Others dislike Columbia's assessment on homes, which essentially is a tax that helps to fund maintenance, tight covenant enforcement and the numerous recreational amenities.

Real estate agents selling homes outside the 30-year-old town take advantage of this assessment fear by advertising, "No CPRA," or Columbia Parks and Recreation Association fee. Of course, residents of most new communities pay some form of homeowner association fees.

But some fearful remarks in earlier hearings on the Key property make Columbia sound like a complete planning faux pas anchored by adult book and video stores.

Some North Laurel critics say they don't want a Columbia duplicate because their neighbor to the northwest has a basic and unimaginative layout, as cities go.

To the contrary, few urban centers have succeeded in developing "smart growth" like Columbia. It has set a remarkable standard for preserving green space in a populous community.

The Rouse development, which needs a zoning change from planned employment to mixed use and approval to build, would preserve 183 of the 522 acres as open space.

Some criticism deserved

Columbia's developers deserved the scrutiny and criticism they received when the important village centers were starting to crumble. North Laurel residents pointed to this when voicing their objections to the Key property.

But don't count out Columbia's so-called original villages.

Rouse is putting the Harper's Choice village center through an extensive renovation. It plans to upgrade the Long Reach village center. And last week, unlike Orioles batters, Rouse responded to the crowd noise and delivered in the clutch, saving the decaying Oakland Mills village center.

A Rouse subsidiary, the landlord for the village centers, has signed a 20-year agreement to bring a Metro Food Market to replace the tiny Giant supermarket in Oakland Mills. Residents needed the supermarket to provide convenience to shoppers and a strong anchor for smaller merchants.

North Laurel residents now are blaming falling home values on the Rouse project.

Blame for falling prices?

One woman said her family had to trim $20,000 from the asking price before her house sold. But homes in the area were becoming more difficult to sell before the Key property became a big deal. One homeowners association said in March that more than a quarter of the 263 units for sale were being rented for lack of buyers.

While it is true that more houses would make this even more of a buyer's market, the Key property can't assume all the blame for falling home prices.

Stagnant and declining home prices, incidentally, are not restricted to North Laurel.

The county government's finances are solid because of a surge in income tax revenue at a time when real estate tax revenue is crawling.

North Laurel residents, especially those who moved there since the mid-70s, had to know that development was coming their way. They sit smack in the middle of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, an obvious growth area.

Residents do have legitimate concerns that Rouse executive Alton Scavo must answer to the zoning board's satisfaction.

Schools and traffic

The Howard County school board, for one, opposes the project because it fears area schools cannot handle that much growth.

Mr. Scavo argues that phasing in the residences over 10 years will soften the impact.

Traffic congestion is another key concern. Roads will become more crowded, regardless of whether the development remains zoned for planned employment or gets approval as a mixed-use center.

When supporters and opponents make their final arguments, only substantive issues like these should matter.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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