Year dedicated to keeping an eye on the town

Retired couple pushed to act by Rouse Co.'s plan to build

December 28, 2003|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

At 4 on a fall morning, Mary and Al Pivar were sitting in the eighth hour of a Howard County Zoning Board hearing, staving off sleep, determined to endure the final statements on a proposal to significantly develop downtown Columbia.

A few weeks earlier, the couple spent an entire weekend with the Columbia Association board of directors, watching its every move during a budget workshop. Al Pivar sat for so long that he got leg cramps.

With their never-ending energy, endurance and commitment to following issues pertinent to Columbia, the Pivars are among the town's most keen watchdogs - epitomizing the type of grass-roots spirit for which the planned community's early residents are known.

The Pivars didn't plan to spend their early retirement years this way. She is a 69-year-old former middle school science teacher who longs to stay active, and he is a 76-year-old retired real estate investor known for his bad jokes.

"You made the mistake, Al, of telling me I needed to get an outside interest," Mary Pivar told her husband while sitting in their Wilde Lake town home.

And so she did, and she brought her husband with her. (He calls himself her sidekick; she says he is much more than that).

At the beginning of this year, the Pivars became embroiled in the Rouse Co.'s petition to add more than a thousand residential units to downtown Columbia in an effort to turn the area into an active urban center, a move that has been largely protested by residents who want the town's core to stay as it is.

Mary Pivar said she recognized the petition as "the last opportunity to pull back the original ideals of development here," and she wanted to be informed about how it could change the planned community that the couple was lured to in the 1970s because of its diversity and inclusiveness.

The Pivars' research on the development company's petition at times became a full-time job, as they came to oppose the plan to develop 1,600 residential units behind Symphony Woods, near the Merriweather Post Pavilion.

`Very dedicated lady'

Some days, the couple spent eight or nine hours researching, looking up information on the county's Web site, poring over documents in the Columbia archives and talking with county officials. At one point, Mary Pivar wrote three pages of questions for a county planner, who spent two hours answering them.

"She's a very dedicated lady," Al Pivar said.

The couple distributed fliers in the community, letting people know about Rouse's plans, and they gathered 150 signatures on a petition opposing the development proposal. They gave residents a six-page information packet about the company's plan that included historical observations, possible alternatives, a list of questions and a bibliography.

The Pivars knew the task they were undertaking was daunting. Mary Pivar said when she began her research, she told herself: "We probably won't beat them, but we sure won't make it easy."

" ... We frequently would joke, we feel like the little guy in Tiananmen Square because what were we up against," she said.

Their efforts prompted many residents who opposed Rouse's plan to attend the Zoning Board hearings, which involved eight hearings over four months. The Pivars were there for all but one of the nights.

There was no question whether the couple would leave before the final marathon hearing Nov. 4 was done. They knew that their presence during the early morning hours would illustrate how seriously they were dedicated to their cause.

"We were going to stick it out," Mary Pivar said. "We symbolized the commitment."

The Pivars' relentless dedication has earned them admiration from fellow community activists. Ruth Cargo, an Oakland Mills resident who worked with them to lobby against Rouse's proposal, said she was "dazzled" by the thoroughness of their research.

"It was just inspiring, actually," she said. "If everybody did one instance of activism once in their lives like that, I think our whole society would be better off."

The Pivars' dedication to community causes has extended to the Columbia Council.

They regularly attend council meetings, where they are often critical of the group that governs the 95,000-resident Columbia Association and acts as its board. But their criticism is tempered with politeness and respect, and sometimes a joke or two. Last month, Al Pivar was praising council members for volunteering their time and said if they went to a doctor, "I can predict the diagnoses - you've go to be nuts to be doing this."

At a meeting this month that was attended by more than 50 residents, Mary Pivar politely lobbied the council to drop the annual assessment rate and rebate surplus dollars to property owners while Al Pivar handed out Hershey's Kisses to the council members. That night the couple stayed at the meeting until midnight - they were the only ones left in the audience - to watch the group vote against giving residents rebates on their assessment charges.

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