Annexation wrangle has a political impact

Some in Columbia can't vote, run in village elections


Linda Wengel lives in the heart of Columbia and wants to run for a seat on her village board this spring, but she can't.

Wengel's new apartment at the Evergreens, in a building for seniors next to The Mall in Columbia, is -- like every other new building in the planned town -- in a legal purgatory.

Owners of new buildings must pay the taxlike property lien to the Columbia Association, but the buildings have not been legally annexed into Columbia, so their residents can't participate in village affairs. The problem is the result of a January 2003 change in practice by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was used to perform annexations because the only other method requires getting approval from at least two-thirds of a village's eligible residents -- a virtual impossibility because most village elections attract a bare minimum of voters.

Whatever the reason, it is not pleasing those affected.

"If you believe in the Columbia concept, the idea that we can't vote but are still paying the assessment is upsetting," Wengel said. For apartments, however, the building owner pays the assessment directly, though it is reflected in the rent.

Joel and Gail Broida, who live east of the mall, at the new Lakeside at Town Center condominiums, agree.

"It's sort of taxation without representation. We can't vote in the election. That's not right," Joel Broida said. Gail Broida, like Wengel, wants to run for a spot on the Town Center Village Board, but she can't.

Joel Broida, who moved to Town Center from Oakland Mills, where his family lived since 1971, said he believes that officials at the Columbia Association have been asleep at the switch.

He noted a letter from HUD dated Jan. 22, 2003, that stated the government will no longer perform annexation for planned unit developments like Columbia.

"It's been sitting up there for three years, and somebody just woke up," Broida said.

Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown said HUD would not necessarily have made the association aware of its policy change.

"When it comes down to annexation, that is a village function. Our involvement at this particular point is really in attempting to assist them." she said.

Wengel, along with other residents of the Evergreens and Lakeside, received a letter dated Feb. 15 from the Town Center Community Association notifying them of the problem.

The community association has appealed for help from Maryland's two U.S. senators and from Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, whose district includes west Columbia.

"It's a bureaucratic thing right now. I think it will be worked out," said Tom O'Connor, president of the Columbia Association board.

Patricia B. Laidig, Town Center village manager, said the Federal Housing Administration, an agency of HUD, has been used to accomplish the annexations since 1983 because the other method, requiring approval from two-thirds of eligible voters "is nearly impossible to achieve," she said.

"Some villages can't even get 10 percent [turnout], Laidig said. This year's elections will decide two village board seats and the Columbia Association board seat.

Town Center village knew nothing of the 2003 HUD letter, she said.

Brown vowed to help solve the problem. "My feeling is it's something we need to get done," she said.

Town Center is the least populated of Columbia's 10 villages with 4,636 residents, though plans for intensive urbanization of the downtown core may change that over time.

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