Objections to Sun series are voiced

Officials, residents meet in Long Reach to air criticisms

`Appalled' by stories

Complaints' focus is emphasis on crime in community

March 14, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

About 100 residents and more than a dozen county and local leaders turned out last night to voice objections to a three-part Sun series that described white flight from older, crime-ridden Columbia neighborhoods.

Officials in Long Reach, who said they felt that the November articles unfairly focused on their village, organized the meeting. It drew the top officials for the Howard County police, housing and education, Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown and Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., which developed Columbia.

Several officials said they were "appalled" by the series, which they said exaggerated problems, relied on outdated information and failed to note the progress Columbia has made in recent years on many fronts.

"We are a thriving, growing city that's nearing middle age, and we've got aches and pains, and we're taking care of the aches and pains," said Howard County Executive James N. Robey.

Howard County police Chief Wayne Livesay said serious crime in Long Reach is at its lowest level since 1994. He said he was disappointed that the series portrayed Long Reach as crime-ridden, particularly because he had spent a lot of time with the reporter.

"The story we read wasn't the story we told," he said.

In June 1997, Long Reach was named a state crime "HotSpot," making it eligible for state and federal crime-fighting grants. At the time, violent crime rates were more than twice the county average, though county police said Long Reach was chosen because it had strong anti-crime programs in place.

Livesay said he considered Long Reach one of the county's "success stories," because its participation in the HotSpot program, which included opening a police substation in the village center, had helped reduce crime.

"Is there crime in Columbia? There certainly is," Livesay said. "Are we addressing it? We certainly are. ... Now everyone in the county wants to be a HotSpot."

Schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said he was offended by the articles. "The school system in no way subscribes" to the idea that older schools are not doing as well as newer ones, he said.

"Some of our oldest schools have some of the newest [computer] equipment," he noted.

Henry F. Dagenais, chairman of the Long Reach Village Board, was moderator of the meeting at the village center. When the series appeared, he complained that it did not reflect several steps the village had taken to address crime, including increased lighting on Tamar Drive and new after-school programs.

After county officials made opening remarks - all of them critical of the series - Dagenais invited village officials and residents to ask questions. Several of those focused more on issues raised by the series than on the articles.

Victor Bailey, a village board member, asked if subsidized housing could be more equally distributed throughout the county and Columbia. He said there seemed to be a disproportionate amount in east Columbia, where Long Reach is.

Leonard S. Vaughan, county housing administrator, disagreed with that assessment. He also said housing officials are barred from steering people, who qualify for housing vouchers, to certain rental properties. Long Reach happens to have a lot of rental units, he said.

County Council member C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said there should be a way to limit the number of units in a particular area that can be rented with subsidy vouchers.

Responding to a question about turnover and vacancies in village centers, Scavo said Rouse remains committed to making the centers a success. The centers include retail shops anchored by a supermarket, village offices, community rooms and, in some cases, interfaith centers.

As supermarkets have grown larger, it has been harder to keep smaller tenants, such as pharmacies, whose products are available in the grocery stores, Scavo said. Also, bank mergers have resulted in the loss of branches, including one in Long Reach, he said.

Scavo said Rouse is looking for ways to revitalize the centers, which many residents consider important to maintaining property values and village pride. "All I can say is, we're committed," he said. "We're putting people on it and money into it. ... One vacancy is too many if you're the landlord."

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