Compromise reached in effort to fix Columbia rule

Delegate drops proposal to facilitate referendums

Regional

December 29, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

For years, the Columbia Association has violated its rules in the name of fairness.

The document that created and governs the association directs its officials to use the highest property assessment in calculating the annual charge paid by property owners - even if the state later adjusts overvalued properties.

Homeowners denounced the rule as unfair, and the association agreed, choosing for years to use the adjusted assessments instead.

State delegates and the Columbia Association have now reached a compromise to draft a bill for the legislative session that would amend the rule to reflect the association's current practice.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in most of yesterday's editions of The Sun stated that Del. Shane E. Pendergrass has worked out a compromise with the Columbia Association to create a bill to change one of the association's rules on property assessments. In fact, Pendergrass said that she is working on such a deal, but will not complete it until she sees a written statement from the association. The Sun regrets the error.

"This is something that's needed," said Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Columbia Democrat, who will draft the proposed bill. "Right now, every time CA does their bills, they're breaking their own laws."

As part of the compromise, state delegates also will halt an effort to create a referendum process in Columbia.

Last year the ignored rule on assessments touched off the movement to establish a referendum process. Some residents and lawmakers seized on the rule as proof that the town needs a way to change its covenants, the rules that guide the Columbia Association.

As it now stands, changing the covenants is virtually impossible - requiring the agreement of every property owner in a town of about 97,600 people.

Referendum advocates said that even the Constitution, the highest law in the land, allows for amendments.

Pendergrass originally planned to propose a bill to create a referendum process but worked out a deal with Columbia Association to create the bill to fix the assessment rule instead.

"Instead of creating a referendum process to solve the problem, we're just going to solve the problem directly," said Joshua Feldmark, board chairman of the Columbia Association.

Some residents, however, expressed disappointment that the referendum idea would be dropped.

"The people of Columbia have never had an opportunity to weigh in on the covenants that govern them," said Joel Pearlman, a member of watchdog group Association for a Better Columbia. The covenants, he noted, were created by the Rouse Co. when it first built the town.

"Even if the people decide not to change the covenants, they should have a way to do that if they needed to," he said.

But many of Columbia Association's board members disagreed, and some expressed relief that talk of referendums seems to be fading.

"We don't need referendums," said Jud Malone, a board member representing Town Center. "The covenants only deal with the assessments. If you come in here now, and you start knocking out the pins in our financial structure, it can only do harm."

Pendergrass said she still believes there ought to be a way to amend the covenants but added, "If we fix this problem we have now [with assessments] we will have made progress."

"I'm willing to let that go now," she said. "Progress is more important."

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