Plans at stake as CA elections near


April 05, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

The next important election in Howard County is less than a month away, though no public offices are at stake.

The members of the Columbia Association board of directors may not draw salaries, but they, along with incoming CA President Phil Nelson, could play a vital role in plans to remake central Columbia and its aging village centers.

Each of the 10 villages has one seat on the board, and half could elect new board members when the two days of voting end April 25. Three villages - Owen Brown, Town Center and Harper's Choice - have no board contest this spring, while incumbents in Oakland Mills and River Hill are running unopposed. The other five each have two candidates vying for one seat.

Wilde Lake has perhaps the most spirited contest, with incumbent Philip W. Kirsch, 62, in a rematch with Linda Odum, 67, who lost by 35 votes last year.

Wilde Lake is the village closest to Town Center and has Columbia's oldest village center operating with major store vacancies, including no supermarket. The county government is reviewing plans for how to redevelop both aging village centers and the entire Town Center area.

Kirsch, a retired federal Labor Department worker, has served three years on the CA board and is critical of the plan by the village center's owner, Kimco Realty, to replace the complex with 500 apartments and 50,000 square feet of convenience retail.

"If we were to follow Kimco's current plan, the village center would be a huge set of apartment buildings and it wouldn't be a community anymore," he said.

But Odum, a real estate broker and resident since 1971, sees it otherwise. She, like others in the business community, feels CA should be more cooperative with General Growth Properties and with Kimco, though she, too, opposes building 500 apartments.

"I think we need some very positive and assertive leadership on the CA board to get CA to be more productive and fruitful," she said. "The current leadership has really operated to restrain CA from taking its appropriate role. They muzzled the staff."

The Hickory Ridge election boasts the youngest candidate. The seat is open since nine-year board member Miles Coffman is leaving to run for a seat on the village board instead.

Sharlene Ferguson, 22, said she decided to run for CA board rather than village board.

"I always wanted to go straight to the top," she said.

Ferguson said she's a graduate student at University of Maryland and tutors athletes on the side.

Her opponent is Gregg Schwind, 42, an eight-year resident and federal lawyer who has served on the village board for the past six years. Downtown and village center redevelopment are top issues, he said, but there are others, like the defeated proposal to build a Walgreens near the Hickory Ridge village center and the Riverdale town house/office project nearby.

"I'd like to see CA take more of an active role in other land use issues that affect the villages," he said.

Long Reach also has a young candidate in James Howard, 29, a six-year resident. Howard is a systems analyst, he said, and has worked on the CA citizen's financial advisory committee.

"CA has very significant concerns with financial stability in the next three years," he said, as the recession plays out and redevelopment plans are finalized.

Russell Swatek, 62, a retired computer software specialist and a six-year resident, is also seeking Long Reach's seat.

"CA really needs to find a way to support the revitalization of the village centers," he said. "For Long Reach that will be very important. With the Wegmans coming, our Safeway could go the way of the Giant in Wilde Lake."

Dorsey Search and King's Contrivance also have two-candidate contests but without immediate village problems to confront, candidates said.

Like in Hickory Ridge, King's Contrivance residents are playing musical chairs between the CA board and the village board.

Evan Coren, the CA board member from King's Contrivance, is running for village board this time, and two village board members, Lorraine Kelly, 53, and Shari Zaret, 57, are running for his seat.

Kelly, 53, an eight-year resident and county Health Department worker, said she stepped forward when no one else did.

"It's a sign of a very healthy community when you have two people who want to be involved at a higher level," Kelly said.

Then Zaret, a 20-year resident who does organizational consulting for nonprofits, also decided to run.

"I see this as an enormous opportunity because of the change of the new CA president," she said. "We really have a window of opportunity to bring in change in how the council operates."

In Dorsey Hall, Kathleen Dragovich, 46, a 10-year resident, and Dan Woodruff, 56, a five-year Columbian, are competing.

Dragovich has 24 years of experience working for nonprofits, including her former community association, she said.

"I'm the kind of person who likes to be involved," the Baltimore native said.

Woodruff, a consultant, said Columbia is experiencing aging infrastructure and changing demographics that CA must address.

"I'm here to speak for Dorsey Search and speak from there," he said.

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