Tending Columbia, Howard County's garden

Open space director has acres of work cut out for him

January 24, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Chick Rhodehamel is something of a real-life Lorax.

As director of open space for the Columbia Association, the 49-year-old ecologist oversees much of what makes Columbia different from other cities its size: three lakes, 20 ponds, 34 miles of stream valleys, 84 miles of pathways, 155 playgrounds, 235 footbridges and 104,000 bulbs, give or take a few.

Like the clever environmentalist of Dr. Seuss, Rhodehamel is a natural for the part.

He knows it takes nine-tenths of an hour to cut an acre of grass on a 6-foot John Deere mower. He identifies the new swan at Lake Elkhorn, without a hint of sarcasm, as "Zach."

"It's a good feeling," says Rhodehamel of his job at CA, the homeowners group that provides services and operates facilities. "You're part of what's making a community work."

Trees, water and grass have always been central to James W. Rouse's concept of Columbia. The developer envisioned the planned community as a garden in which people could grow, so he left large tracts of land undeveloped.

"When I pull into Columbia, and I just look at the place, I fall in love with it all over again," says Joseph Merke, chairman of the Columbia Council, CA's governing body. "It's like you're living in the middle of the forest."

About one-third of Columbia's 14,000 acres is devoted to open space. Rhodehamel suspects it to be the city's most used amenity.

"Most people think of open space as Lake Elkhorn, the Town Center plaza, maybe their little playground -- tot lot -- in their neighborhood," he explains. "What they don't realize is this really neat concept of linking them all."

Growing up in Levittown, Pa., -- one of the first post-war planned communities -- Rhodehamel tagged along with his father, a geohydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, on field trips to south Jersey. He liked the work mainly because it meant a day off from school, even if he did have to give a report to the class when he got back.

When he was 10 or 12, he and his dad conducted a series of experiments on the accuracy of rain gauge placements. It was the elder Rhodehamel's contention that the established method of measuring rainfall wasn't the most accurate.

In a clearing in the forest, they set up gauges. Not just the usual one -- positioned in the center -- but 40. It was Chick Rhodehamel's job to run around and call out the readings after it rained.

"I was his leg man," he remembers. "What did I know? It was a day off from school."

Father and son co-wrote a paper on their findings when Rhodehamel was 13.

Rhodehamel got a degree from Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pa., in natural sciences in in 1972. He worked as a consulting ecologist for almost eight years at a small company in Devon, Pa., run by one of his father's former graduate assistants. In 1979, he became CA's first ecologist, then climbed from open space manager to assistant director, then to director last year after his predecessor retired.


Rhodehamel suspects that his childhood in Levittown had something to do with his move to Columbia. In many ways, Columbia was Rouse's response to William Levitt's community, with its homogeneous housing tracts and lack of open space.

Levittown "was not his inspiration, it was his anti-inspiration," says Nick Mangraviti, an architect and former village official in Columbia's Town Center.

Philosophically -- and from a city planning standpoint -- Rhodehamel likes the concept of a planned community, calling it a "better way" to set a community up, whether it is like Levittown or Columbia.

"It puts together a lot of the aspects that make a functioning community," he says.

With so much of Columbia's identity -- and quality of life -- tied up in its open space, Rhodehamel's work is constantly under scrutiny by the city's 87,000 residents.

Many responsibilities

The open space division, with a staff that varies in size by season from 65 to 80, is responsible for many services people take for granted, including repairing paths, clearing snow and keeping playground equipment safe. To reduce what Rhodehamel calls the "splinter factor," some of the renovated equipment is made from recycled milk cartons.

As Columbia ages and growth slows to a halt, CA will continue to shift its focus from the construction of amenities to the renovation and upgrade of those already here.

CA's proposed capital budget for the fiscal year that begins May 1 includes several major open-space expenditures: $382,000 for pathway replacement Columbia-wide; $300,000 for repair of the concrete spillway at Lake Elkhorn; $295,000 for pathway development in Columbia's 10th and final village, River Hill; and $150,000 for the replacement of older playgrounds.

"I think our division will be more focused on maintaining these amenities," said Rhodehamel.

To that end, CA recently hired a landscape architect to help decide what type of trees and flowers to plant and how to place them. A number of factors must be considered, he explains, including when they will bloom, how large they will grow and how hardy they are.

"There really is kind of a science," Rhodehamel said.

Outside the community building at the Oakland Mills village center, Rhodehamel identifies a magnolia tree as a Bracken brown beauty, and flips one of its leaves to reveal a brown underside.

The decade-old tree is thriving in a spot he picked out himself.

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