All Ronald Ledford wanted to do one day last summer was take his two granddaughters swimming in Columbia. It seemed like a simple enough excursion in a planned community that has 23 outdoor pools.
But it would not be that easy.
Despite living in the suburb for 31 years, Ledford needed to show proof of his residence to allow his granddaughters - Kendal and McKayla Williams, ages 8 and 4 - to swim in Columbia Association pools.
That would require Ledford to purchase a $25 household resident card because he did not have an annual pool membership.
When employees at the association's aquatics office informed him of this, Ledford offered other ways to prove his residence - his driver's license, the bills for his association lien. None of those would do, he was told.
"I've never heard of such a thing - I've got to be charged to show I'm resident?" he said.
Now, the board of directors has acknowledged the absurdity of the situation and has voted to provide resident cards without charge.
Although the board made the decision last month while working on the 2004 capital budget (which will not be approved until February), the cards became free immediately, said Keisha Reynolds, the association's manager of community relations and communications.
The Columbia Association distributes about 9,000 cards annually, and the association will have to spend about $16,000 a year to provide the cards free, Reynolds said.
So far, it has issued more than 175 free cards, she said.
The homeowners association developed the resident cards in 1998 as a way to verify Columbia residency, allowing people who live in the town to use association amenities on a pay-as-you-go basis instead of paying for annual memberships that can cost hundreds of dollars.
Most, but not all, people with Columbia addresses pay the homeowners association assessment, which entitles them to use the facilities - including the gyms, pools, golf clubs and ice rink - at a resident rate, Reynolds said.
At first, the association charged $5 for individuals and $25 for a family to produce the cards.
This fiscal year, the association started charging a flat $25 because producing cards for one person or a family was taking the same amount of time and materials, Reynolds said.
The $25 fee covered the cost of the card; the organization was not making a profit on them, Reynolds said.
But Ledford felt that the annual association assessment he pays on his Oakland Mills home - 73 cents per $100 of valuation on 50 percent of the fair market value - is enough money going to the association.
`Matter of principle'
He did not take his granddaughters swimming last summer, refusing to pay the $25 because as "a matter of principle ... I was not going to pay $25 for the privilege of paying my CA lien once a year," he said.
Ledford told Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown and the board that a driver's license with a Columbia address should be a legitimate proof of residency. "A Maryland driver's license is accepted by everybody," he said. "Try to write a check without a driver's license and see if they'll take it."
After hearing complaints from Ledford and other residents, board Chairman Miles Coffman proposed during the board's budget workshop last month that the resident cards should be free.
He said it does not make sense to charge residents for the cards when they are paying the assessment.
"I can make a much better argument that they should be free than [that the residents] should be charged for them," he said.
`Nickeled and dimed'
Board member Barbara Russell of Oakland Mills agreed and said residents need to feel as though they are getting something for their assessment and are not getting "nickeled and dimed to death."
The free cards are "something that benefit everybody and cost practically nothing, so why not do it?" she said.
The board's decision makes Ledford happy, although he still maintains that a driver's license should be sufficient to prove residency.
His grandchildren, who live in Nanticoke on the Eastern Shore, will visit this week, and Ledford said he has gotten a free resident card for their visit.
"I still need a resident card, which I still don't understand," he said. "But, hey, as long as they give it to me free, I don't care."