RV lot's low rates costly to Columbia

Spaces in demand, but storage facility loses $100,000 a year

November 29, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

In Columbia's Gateway Industrial Park, where office buildings are abuzz with commerce and streets are named for inventors, there's one spot where the law of supply and demand seems perpetually out of whack.

There, on a couple of acres of asphalt, the Columbia Association runs a cut-rate recreational vehicle storage park for residents, who aren't supposed to clutter suburban streets with monster campers and boats.

There's a waiting list to get into the place, yet it loses more than $100,000 a year providing parking for fewer than 140 relatively affluent residents. Nearby for-profit storage yards charge considerably more, and most are full.

"It just doesn't make any sense," says Columbia Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge, who at a recent meeting puzzled over how the storage yard could have losses and excess demand.

"If we run it and break even, fine. I think it is a service, but the rest of the lien-payers shouldn't be footing the bill for a few. ... If you look at the benefit to [the number of] people involved, it's a less of a benefit than the [Columbia Association] horse stables were."

But profits or even avoiding a loss on a particular operation isn't the point at the Columbia Association, supporters say.

"Everything we do, in my opinion, is for the benefit of the lien-payers, and some of those things do not break even on their operations," says Columbia Council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice.

Charles Rhodehamel, who oversees the storage yard as the Columbia's Association's vice president for open space management, agrees.

"It's being operated as a service," he says. "It's not a profit center, but then again, we're a nonprofit."

The Columbia Association created the storage yard more than four years ago as a way to help homeowners in the town of 88,000 obey strict rules that prohibit parking campers and boats on residential lots and streets.

The project was disputed from the start because it involved paying Rouse Co. $1 million for 5 acres that state tax assessors valued at $140,000. Some of the land, off Robert Fulton Drive, was contaminated with heavy metals from its days as a General Electric Co. appliance-manufacturing park.

Rouse officials said the state's valuation did not reflect the property's true market value. But the company agreed, as part of the deal, to place Snowden Square shopping center and a planned 650-unit residential development nearby under the Columbia Association's annual property tax, called a lien.

That move was estimated at the time to bring the Columbia Association about $300,000 a year in lien payments. Association officials could not determine yesterday how much lien income the properties generate.

The storage park, which cost $358,000 to build, has been a financial drain despite a waiting list for parking spaces nearly 70 people long.

The Columbia Association lost $120,000 on the facility in the fiscal year that ended April 30 and expects to lose about $117,000 on it this year. That will bring losses to $520,000 since it opened in May 1997.

The lot has 179 parking spaces, but such is the passion for large vehicles that it is full with 139 campers and boats. Built on about 3 of the 5 acres purchased from Rouse, the lot has no room to expand. The rest of the land, which is nearby but not adjacent to the 3 acres, has been set aside for an undetermined use.

Columbia residents pay $198 to $529 a year to park in the yard, depending on the size of the vehicle. That's less than the fee at nine out of 10 area storage facilities surveyed by The Sun, in part because some do not give a price break for smaller vehicles.

The only better deal around is available only to members of the military, who can store a 40-foot trailer at Fort Meade for $276 to $336 a year, depending on their rank. Even Fort Meade charges more than the Columbia Association for smaller vehicles, a minimum of $252 a year.

Perone Performance Products Co. in North Laurel and Jessup Self-Storage charge $600 a year to park on their asphalt lots, regardless of the vehicle's size. Ritchie Boat & RV Storage in Glen Burnie also offers a flat rate, $684 a year. Golden Ring Boat & RV Storage in Rosedale, in eastern Baltimore County, charges $516 to $744 a year, depending on size.

Morrison expresses reluctance to increase what the Columbia Association charges to something closer to market rates.

"If we price it to break even, then we may drive people away and end up losing money because we're not full," he says.

Deciding what amenities to offer and subsidize is one of the trickiest tasks of a homeowners association, says Maryjane Moore, chairwoman of the Community Associations Institute, a membership group for homeowners associations based in Alexandria, Va.

She says the people who don't feel the lot should be subsidized might be overlooking the benefits the facility offers to those who don't park in it.

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