Residents of an Ellicott City housing development who angrily opposed an unusual cable television franchise bill at a County Council hearing now have council members eager to help them.
It is a complicated tale, mixing consumer outrage, development tensions and regulatory legislation -- all with a political subtext.
The bill, sponsored by western county Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga as he prepares to leave the council after the November election, would allow developers to get individual cable television franchises to provide video services for single housing projects of fewer than 1,600 homes.
Advocates say the bill would provide some public regulation for private operations, while critics say it could help developers obtain a commercial stranglehold on people who buy their homes.
Residents of upscale Taylor Village, near the former Taylor Manor Hospital, bitterly opposed the bill sought by Dr. Bruce Taylor, their developer, because they claim he roped them into a $65-a-month mandatory cable services fee from his in-house cable firm -- without notice and without giving them a choice.
"Developers aren't satisfied with selling land anymore. They want residuals," in the form of fees they control through legal covenants for services such as video, said Frank Giove, 64, a Taylor Village resident who testified before the council.
Faced with vehement opposition at a public hearing Sept. 19, Feaga, offered Monday to withdraw it.
"At this point, I think with the concerns they [residents] have, it would be easier to withdraw it," Feaga said, adding that he had thought about amending the bill to help the residents avoid the fee but didn't think he had the votes.
A sponsor's withdrawal would normally be enough to kill any bill, but this time council Democrats have intervened.
The Democrats want to change the legislation to help the Taylor Village residents escape the mandatory fee -- a change Taylor said he is also negotiating with Steve Hannan, the county consumer protection administrator. Hannan also testified against the bill.
The bill would allow Taylor to expand his cable firm's operation across county roads, but killing it would not kill the mandatory $65-a-month fee, Democrats pointed out.
Hannan's office also is investigating the residents' complaints that they were not told about the fees when they bought their homes.
Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat running for county executive, met with a large group of residents Sunday night, and Ulman is now vowing to help.
Rather than have Feaga withdraw the bill, Ulman and Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat and ally, said they would rather work on an amended measure for the council's final voting session Oct. 30. The current County Council will leave office in December, and no meetings are scheduled during November in election years.
The election is a subtext to the situation because Taylor Village is in Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon's district.
Merdon is the Republican nominee for executive and a major rival of Ulman. Merdon also is in an awkward position because he is chairman of the five-member council, but the three Democrats control the voting majority. If they wish, they can block withdrawal of the bill.
Merdon said the cable bill applies countywide, not just in Ellicott City, but he is willing to consider changes.
"I'm certainly open to discussing all of those options," Merdon said. "Right now, I'm not in favor of it as it stands."
Ulman said: "We're working through a solution. I'm hoping we can work out a compromise. I want to do my best to help these folks at Taylor Village."
Ulman pointed out that the legislation can be used as leverage to eliminate the $65 fee.
"If we simply reject the franchise, they're not freed up from their covenants," he said. "That's the leverage we have."
Guzzone agreed, saying, "It's got to be total free competition" for video services.
Giove said he wants help but doesn't want the elected officials hurting the consumer office investigation.
"I don't want to reward Taylor and these people," he said about the developer and his partners.
After learning about Ulman's intentions, Feaga was cautiously amenable.
"I'm receptive if the other council members want to do something to save it. I need to hear more. I don't want to turn it into a political thing in a political year," Feaga said.