The chance to confront Howard County Executive Ken Ulman face-to-face with their festering complaints brought a standing room-crowd of more than 200 people last week to a public forum at Glenwood Community Center in western Howard County.
"Isn't it fun being county exe cutive?" Hugh Flaherty asked to laughter as he rose to speak about one of the two issues that brought the majority of the crowd out Thursday night - a proposed used-car lot in rural Daisy, in far western Howard County. The other major topic was the failed septic system at the Villas at Cattail Creek, where construction is soon to begin on a new system.
"I enjoy this," Ulman replied to Flaherty, adding that he wants everyone to understand that "people 100 percent happy don't come to this."
The crowd was so big that Ulman asked his large corps of department heads and technical advisers to give up their seats to residents when the session began.
"If I gotta stand, you gotta stand," he said jokingly.
"I think it's important that I come out and demonstrate open, transparent government," he said at the outset.
He asked people who came for the used car lot and septic issues to rise as a group, showing that nearly everyone there came for one or the other.
Residents near Daisy, a rural crossroads where corner lots have been zoned since 1954, are vehemently opposed to a used-car business planning to open there.
Despite the zoning, residents say traffic on the twisting, two-lane roads in the area would become more dangerous, and their quality of life would be damaged by the lot.
"I fear for children and recreational users [of the roads]. Save the county from such blight," Wally Carson of Woodbine said.
Paul Eden, a Cattail resident, complained that residents' condominium fees could more than triple to pay for the new septic system once it is completed. Since western Howard has no public water or sewers, developers installed a community septic system to enable them to build townhouses. The system has never worked and trucks come as many as five times a day to pump and remove the effluent.
The County Council is ready to pass new regulations over such systems to prevent a recurrence, and the Ulman administration plans to amend the bill to cover Cattail Creek's new system. County government had no legal authority over the system until General Assembly passage this year of enabling legislation sponsored by Del. Warren E. Miller.
"This is something that never should have happened, and it's taken way too long to fix," Ulman said.
On the used-car lot issue, the executive told the crowd that he is ordering another review by county agencies. Because of the long-standing commercial zoning, the owner has the legal right to build a car lot. Shops that repair sports cars and motorcycles occupy another building at the crossroads, and new vehicles are stored on another corner where a bus company once was located, but the corner in question is undeveloped.
Other issues Ulman faced included neighborhood trash problems and Stuart Kohn's complaint that Howard County General Hospital's emergency room is so overburdened that all development should be halted until improvements are made.
The town hall-style meeting was Ulman's second, following a more-than-three-hour session 11 months ago at Oakland Mills High school that drew about 150 people. Their concerns included noise occasionally coming from Merriweather Post Pavilion, zoning violations and speeders in residential areas.
Others had larger issues on their minds - such as the long-discussed plan to change zoning for Columbia to prepare for a major redevelopment of the town center area.
People in the western county were interested in different issues, though several who came to Glenwood live in Columbia and took the opportunity to speak to Ulman directly.
Glen Goldberg came to read a letter from his 17-year-old son Dylan, who said he has seen people viewing pornography at the East Columbia Library.
Library director Valerie Gross said her staff investigated the complaints thoroughly but could not substantiate them.