Public offers its counsel

As part of Ulman's transition, 125 residents outline countywide priorities at forum

December 08, 2006|by a sun reporter

Newly installed County Executive Ken Ulman wants to know what's on the public's mind.

The answer can be summed up in a word: Everything.

That was evident after almost three hours of public testimony this week. What is less apparent is what the new administration will do with it all as it shapes short- and long-term strategies and priorities, because what the public is thinking is often conflicting, sometimes costly, and in other cases would require a reversal in county policy.

But Ulman asked, and residents answered unambiguously.

Their recommendations included overhauling the entire government, designating individual properties historical landmarks, imposing a multiyear moratorium on development, and changing the cooking oil used in restaurants..

There were, however, five themes that echoed during the forum attended by an estimated 125 people Wednesday night in the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building sponsored by Ulman's transition team:

Stronger environmental policies and an expansion of protected open space.

Assuring a housing market that spans the full economic spectrum.

Prohibiting housing for low- and moderate-income families from being concentrated and instead requiring that those units be constructed in all regions of the county.

Opposition to the 23-story luxury residential and retail tower planned for downtown Columbia.

No issue, though, dominated the testimony more than the plan to transform downtown Columbia into an urban center.

"This is the biggest development issue since Columbia was founded ... perhaps the biggest in the country," said Alan Klein, who has formed a broad-based coalition to oppose the plan in its current form.

Klein acknowledged that the administration will face numerous challenges but said the future of downtown Columbia "must take the highest priority."

Marvin Lawson said the administration should require road improvements and a transit system before development projects proceed downtown, and also that the county should require that buildings be ecologically and resource efficient.

The "development of downtown Columbia has to be at the top of his [Ulman's] list," Lawson said.

The plan advocates permitting 5,500 additional housing units, 3 million square feet of new commercial offices and 750,000 square feet for retail.

Several speakers insisted that the final plan reflect the vision and social values of James W. Rouse, Columbia's founder. And some said that the plan should add to the vibrancy of the village centers and not consider them separately, as is now planned.

"The impact of downtown ... hits these villages very close to it, especially Wilde Lake," said Vince Marando. "Not much real thought has been given to the villages."

Numerous speakers said the county must assure housing for low- and moderate-income families and that those units should be situated throughout the county.

The County Council enacted this year a policy that permits developers to transfer the affordable housing units they are required to build to other areas, such as along the U.S. 1 corridor.

Congregating units will create "economic ghettos," said John David Smith.

Jud Malone said the county faces a "crisis" in the lack of affordable housing and warned that the county is becoming an "economically exclusionary" community.

Stuart M. Kohn suggested a moratorium on development until the expansion of the Howard County General Hospital is completed, which is scheduled for 2011.

He said the hospital is at capacity. The county's projected growth, especially from the realignment of military bases, will overwhelm the ability to provide quality medical and health services, Kohn said.

Guy Guzzone, a former councilman and state senator-elect who is heading Ulman's transition team, said the public's suggestions are only "the tip of the iceberg."

Every county department, he said, has been instructed to submit a report on "challenges and opportunities" to help shape the Ulman administration.

Guzzone said residents can submit ideas by e-mail through Dec. 22 at transitionteam@co.ho.md.us.

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