Village center banning debated

Policy: Residents disagree on keeping `undesirables' from public places.

October 20, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

The problem at Harper's Choice Village Center stretches back to the 1970s, when troublesome people were referred to as "the willies." These days, village leaders call them different names - "hobos" or "undesirables" - but the problem is the same: what to do about people who sleep on benches at night and cause trouble during the day.

This year, Harper's Choice officials decided to ban from the village center two homeless men who loitered there and harassed customers. And the village board is considering banning two others.

The actions have renewed debate in Columbia over the practice of banning people who are dubbed public nuisances.

"I didn't know this banning thing had been going on. It angers me," said resident Henry Shapiro, who spoke against the practice at last week's Columbia Association board meeting. "It goes against everything this town is supposed to be about."

Others praised banning and the improvements it has brought to village centers.

"It has worked very well," said Barbara Russell, a board member from Oakland Mills. Residents, who were once afraid to leave their apartments or visit Oakland Mills Village Center, now find it safer and approachable, she said.

Most of the banning in Howard County occurs in Columbia, according to county police who enforce the bans, and the hot spots are village centers and apartments complexes.

At Harper's Choice Village Center, one man was banned this year for lying on village benches all day, public indecency and swearing at passing customers. Another homeless man had lingered in the area for months and was banned in the spring after he started setting fires outside the village office to warm his hands and cook hot dogs.

But the act of banishment runs against the ideals on which Columbia was founded, said longtime resident Shapiro, 82. "We keep hearing about James Rouse's vision. ... Everybody's supposed to get along and be included, not chased away."

The Association for a Better Columbia, a watchdog group, worries that those with the power to ban will use it frivolously.

ABC member Joel Pearlman pointed to an instance in 2002 when a golfer was banned from a Columbia Association course after placing signs on his truck criticizing the quality of the course. And, more recently, David Hlass, a board member of the Columbia Association was banned from his village shopping center in Long Reach after he was accused of harassing employees of the company that manages the property.

Banning serves a purpose when it comes to illegal activities, said board member Wolfger Schneider, who represents Harper's Choice. But people who loiter should not be banned just because they want somewhere to go and hang out, he added.

"In Columbia, there really is no public space except the roads," said Schneider, who proposes creating areas in villages where people could congregate and talk. The board voted last week to study the idea.

No definitive set of rules explains what can lead to banning. That is because any entity that owns private property - including stores, restaurants and village offices owned by Columbia's homeowners association - can ban someone from its premises.

The practice of banning began at village centers in the early 1980s, according to Chick Rhodehamel, who manages open space for the Columbia Association. The homeowners' group - at the suggestion of the county police who were dealing with people who were recurring nuisances - created a form that authorized officers to ban disruptive people from association property. Then, if they returned, the police could arrest them on charges of trespassing.

But as the county has grown, enforcing those bans has become more difficult. Howard County police keep no count of the number of people banned, but the department has started entering the bans into a computer database and reformatting banning forms to make it easier to take cases to court.

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