Forum becomes growth debate

Columbia's future a key topic in forum for executive hopefuls

Maryland votes 2006

August 30, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

With a partisan crowd of Democrats filling every seat and lining the walls of Kahler Hall for a candidates forum, Republican county executive hopeful Christopher J. Merdon might have had good reason to feel intimidated.

Instead, Merdon used Monday night's packed house on hostile political turf to attack rival candidate Democrat Ken Ulman on Ulman's own issue - the touchy matter of redeveloping Columbia's Town Center.

"I want to straighten out the process for redevelopment of downtown Columbia. You can't plan a downtown in seven days. I want to slow down the process," Merdon said, a reference to the weeklong planning charrette on Town Center redevelopment that Ulman helped organize last fall.

Ulman quickly struck back. "I think it's kind of interesting that 71 days before an election is the first day I hear my opponent mention Town Center," he said of his rival, a fellow county councilman. "He wasn't around for the charrette."

The lively session in Harper's Choice even produced instant legislation, when a question about saving trees on Gov. Warfield Parkway prompted Ulman to say he will introduce a bill next month to declare a portion of the tree-lined street a scenic road. Merdon immediately offered to co-sponsor the bill.

Monday's event before a crowd of more than 200 drew all four candidates for county executive: Merdon, Ulman, Democrat Harry M. Dunbar and independent C. Stephen Wallis. Dunbar and Ulman are opponents in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary.

Development - specifically plans for downtown Columbia - drew some of the most heated sparring. On the County Council, Ulman represents West Columbia, which contains central Columbia, while Merdon represents Ellicott City and Elkridge.

Some Columbia residents feel developer General Growth Properties Inc. is pushing for too many homes, offices, stores and apartments too close together, and are alarmed at separate plans for a 23-story high-rise condominium that they fear could result in a dense urban downtown, with traffic gridlock and exclusive high-end stores and homes.

They feel residents' suggestions during the charrette were mostly ignored and worry about talk of up to 5,500 new homes and apartments that could overwhelm Columbia.

Merdon addressed those fears.

"Railroading - that's how people feel about the charrette process. Lots of ideas came in - few came out," Merdon said.

Ulman has agreed that 5,500 is far too many homes and that the planning process needs more time. He claims credit for helping to block the initial proposal for new homes, for saving Merriweather Post Pavilion, and for starting a process he has said should lead to the kind of people-friendly, diverse downtown Columbia founder James W. Rouse envisioned.

"We've got a long way to go," Ulman said, adding that's why a traffic study was done that showed significant problems if current roads aren't improved. "We want a wonderful town center that is alive in the spirit of Jim Rouse."

Merdon offered himself as a centrist who can work with Democrats but who also knows that there are 20,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Howard.

"I represent the mainstream ideas of Howard County. If this election is about party, I'll lose. I know that," he said.

He wants "to restart the downtown process." He said that as a zoning board member, he listened and helped defeat General Growth's original plan for building 1,600 homes on land behind Merriweather Post Pavilion, and said he's attended other meetings on the subject.

The charrette went too fast, Merdon said. Merdon then said he alone on the council voted against the comprehensive rezoning bill known as Comp Lite and is someone who will "make sure we have an open process."

Later, when the candidates were asked whether they would support a law limiting the height of new buildings in Columbia to current levels, both Ulman and Merdon refused, saying they would support whatever limits come out of a more comprehensive planning process for downtown.

"I will not introduce such a law. I will respect the master plan and live up to those standards," Ulman said.

Merdon said, "I believe in a holistic approach." It would be "irresponsible," he said, to pluck one item from a complex set of zoning rules and change it.

Wallis agreed, adding that he wouldn't want one tall building to alter the landscape, however. The fuss over the height of the 23-story tower, he said, reveals other problems.

"This is emblematic of why people are turned away from the political process," Wallis said.

Dunbar, who bills himself the slow-growth candidate, said he favors a height limit. "That's one of the things I will do" if elected, he said.

Of the four County Council candidates, Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty and Republican Tom D'Asto both said they want a limit on height. Democrat Josh Feldmark said the planned 23-story Plaza Tower is "just too tall for Columbia," and he would like to stop it. Jeffrey L. Underwood, a Democrat running under the name UNcommon, agreed with Ulman and Merdon.

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