Aiming to keep county on top

2nd District residents forming strategies for continued prosperity

`A model in so many ways'

Concerns aired range from dumping to development

April 13, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Residents and elected officials in Columbia, which has served as a "new town" model for 35 years, are seeking ways to polish the aging neighborhoods and keep the town and Howard County prosperous in the next century.

A group of 18 people -- many residents of the east Columbia portion of the 2nd Councilmanic District, and others from areas east to the Anne Arundel County line -- met last night in the county's Gateway Building to plan how to help Howard remain the state's most prosperous jurisdiction.

"There's no reason Howard County shouldn't be a model in so many ways," John Maitland, 70, a 27-year east Columbia resident said as the group discussed ideas for keeping the 2nd Councilmanic District from slipping from the economic, academic and residential peaks envied by others.

The group was formed by County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat. He borrowed the approach from a National Association of Counties program called Sustainable Communities, which shows people how to draft plans to preserve their communities. However, Gray missed the meeting because funeral services for his mother, Virginia Gray, 82,were held yesterday .

Howard is preparing a new 10-year General Plan and Gray's group is looking for ways that the 2nd District can help shape the agenda to its benefit.

By 2013, virtually all of Howard's land is expected to be developed, subdivided for specific future uses, or in preservation programs, county planning supervisor Keith Lackie told the group. A population that has doubled twice since 1960 is expected to grow an average of 1 percent a year over the next 20 years, and a booming economy is predicted to slow, he said.

Tax revenue growth will shrink, schools, roads and public buildings will need renovations and the number of senior citizens is predicted to triple. In older Columbia communities like Oakland Mills and Long Reach, early signs of distress are visible in lower standardized school test scores, an increase in petty crime and some neglected homes and pathways.

"Will people who traditionally come [to Columbia] continue to come and reinvest in older homes? Or will they go to Anne Arundel County or other places with new development areas?" asked Marsha McLaughlin, deputy county planning director. "Are schools causing people to turn away from a neighborhood instead of buying in?"

The 2nd District is key in another way, McLaughlin added, because it contains most of the county's prime developable land for industrial and office use along U.S. 1 and Interstate 95.

The group split into subgroups of three to talk about community, economic and environmental issues ranging from how to use the 300-acre undeveloped farmland known as Blandair in the district's center, to how to keep residents from dumping trash in secluded pathways.

"We might be able to help each other," said Joe Merke, 60, a Columbia Council member. Maybe, he said, neighborhood people can unite through their villages, the Columbia Association and with county help, make a difference.

"We want to work on problems before they become problems -- early on," said Barbara Russell, a County Council staffer who ran the meeting in Gray's absence.

Gerald E. Brock, vice president and senior development director of Howard Research and Development, an affiliate of the Rouse Co. that built Columbia, warned that as growth slows and developers move on, "there's going to be a bigger vacuum than people realize."

Brock said the builders will take with them jobs and contributions to nonprofits, community involvement and other benefits many people don't now fully appreciate.

Others, like 30-year Oakland Mills resident Doris Ligon, are worried about things closer to home. "When we first moved here, we would go to the village center, get an ice cream, walk the paths and we would enjoy it," she said.

Recently, accompanying a grandchild on a pathway near her home, Ligon said she encountered a "cluster" of young people in a secluded spot and she beat a hasty retreat with the child. "Safety is crucial," she said.

Minnie M. Kenny, 70, complained about people who dump trash, old computers, bicycles and other junk in wooded areas near her Oakland Mills home.

"The stream is filling up with debris," she said. "We have to keep the pathways attractive. That's what I think we're letting go."

And although the Rouse Co. and HRD have spent millions rebuilding the Oakland Mills and Long Reach village centers in recent years, Oakland Mills still has a vacant, boarded up former fast-food restaurant sitting prominently on the parking lot.

"People coming in and seeing vacant buildings begin to wonder about viability," Kenny said.

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