Residents think town on right path, poll finds

Ages, races differ on importance of founding principles

Mirror of diverse makeup

Columbia

March 26, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The social goals and values on which Columbia was founded matter most to residents who are black, over 45 or have lived in town more than 20 years, according to a recent 800-person telephone survey commissioned by the Columbia Association.

The survey, conducted from Feb. 26 to March 3 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research as part of the Columbia Association's strategic planning process, found that 62 percent of residents think Columbia is on the right track.

That is up 30 percent from April 2000, when residents were asked about same thing in a survey conducted for the Columbia Flier. Then, the town was embroiled in a dispute surrounding then-Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty.

"Things have turned around in the two-year period, which is very important," said Columbia Council Chairman Lanny Morrison of Harper's Choice.

The survey, released at Thursday's council meeting, was intended to take the public's pulse on some of the biggest issues facing the 35-year-old planned community.

During the past year, the council has drawn up a list of "strategic issues" - what it sees as Columbia's most pressing challenges. The council asked for input on the list at 11 town meetings, but turnout was sparse in most villages and did not reflect the community's makeup. Most of those who attended were white and over 60, and had lived in town more than 20 years.

The telephone survey was intended to reach a broader cross-section of the community. The council agreed to pay Mason-Dixon up to $17,500 for the poll and other services, including attending and summarizing the town meetings.

Of those surveyed, 62 percent were white, 24 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent Asian. The remaining 3 percent were listed as "other" or declined to disclose their race. That racial mix nearly mirrors Columbia's population, which the 2000 Census found to be 64 percent white, 21 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian and 3 percent "other."

Race appears to play a significant role in how residents perceive the community and the Columbia Association, the homeowners association that governs it.

Pollsters asked residents to rate the importance of Columbia's original vision as what they referred to as "an open, caring community that encourages diversity, community participation and protection of the environment."

Seventy-one percent of blacks surveyed rated that vision as very important. Just 41 percent of whites did. The views of Asians and Hispanics were not included in results presented to the council.

The vision was also more important to older and longtime residents. Sixty percent of residents 45 and older rated the vision as very important, as did 62 percent of residents who have lived in town 20 years or longer. In comparison, 38 percent of residents who have lived in town less than 10 years or were younger than 45 rated the vision as very important.

The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

"I think it's in large part a confirmation of what I expected I would see, but it's always good to have a statistically valid survey to see where the community is and what's important to them," Morrison said.

The results might not have been surprising because of the community's integrationist origins and its shift, years later, to more exclusive development.

The community was established in 1967 as a model for integration, welcoming people of any race, religion and income at a time when interracial marriage had only recently been legalized in Maryland.

Many of the early Columbia "pioneers" came to be part of that suburban experiment, in which subsidized housing and single-family homes sat side-by-side. But the town's commitment to low-income housing faded over the years. Newer residents tended to come because of good schools, not social engineering.

Pollsters also inquired about how changes in Columbia could affect Columbia Association services and programs. The changes mentioned included demographic shifts, the impending completion of the town's residential construction, slower revenue growth, aging of Columbia Association facilities and the increased competition those facilities face.

Sixty-one percent of residents rated the impact of those changes as very important. The results did not vary significantly by age or length of residence, but they did by race. Seventy percent of blacks rated it very important, compared with 56 percent of whites.

Only 49 percent of residents said the Columbia Association's governance structure - the subject of a recently concluded 15-month study - is a very important issue. Fifty-eight percent of people who have lived in town 20 years or more rated it very important, compared with 39 percent of those who have been there less than 10 years.

The fourth issue concerned the association's role in addressing community issues, including property values, village centers and advocacy for the community. Sixty-seven percent of residents rated that very important, a view that varied little across demographic groups.

After they considered the issues compiled by the council, residents were asked to add others that they thought the community faces. Most said they thought the council's list covered it. But some said they were concerned about crime and the Columbia Association's financial health.

The council plans to take the survey results into account as it proceeds with the strategic planning process. The next step is to choose an issue and focus on addressing it.

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