County Critics See Room For Improvement

May 03, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

Howard County's leaders see their home as central Maryland's jewel, a low-crime, high-income sparkler boasting the best of everything, set midway between two major cities and ready to grow.

But where some see great schools, public services, Columbia's still-unfulfilled potential and a thriving economy, a persistent, determined minority notes growing problems, too: building congestion, poorly regulated food businesses and a chronically crowded hospital emergency room.

These critics argue that county leaders are too much in the thrall of developers and business interests, while paying too little attention to problems they associate with growing urbanization.

Such longtime residents as Angela Beltram, Fred Tancordo and Stuart Kohn, and newer ones, such as New York native Marc Norman, form a core of skilled, dedicated watchdogs in a fast-growing county of 275,000 people that's still small enough for educated, tenacious citizens to have influence.

"There's a high standard of excellence across the county," Norman said.

"It's the high standards for everything that has made the county such a good place," he said. "You've got three choices - move, suck it up, or fight it. I've got kids in school. We're fighting for our families."

Columbia's vision of racial, religious and economic diversity has attracted activists for decades - as the five-year debate over how to remake the town's central core shows - but in recent years more residents outside the planned town have joined in, irritated by congestion.

"People are very upset about traffic and all, and I don't know what can be done about it. It all depends on growth," said Beltram, who was a County Council member in the late 1980s. Government is too willing to consider changing the rules or even ignoring them to aid a particular business project, she said.

She and others have developed some influence by doing time-consuming research, constantly prodding officials and by using good organizational skills and focused, civil arguments.

County Executive Ken Ulman cheerfully accepts the criticism, partly because he doesn't see a conflict with his view of Howard's quality of life. He enjoys hearing other opinions, especially from well-prepared, polite people, he said.

"I'm convinced we can always do better," he said, crediting Kohn with several good ideas the county has used. "I enjoy people pointing out things we can do better."

Ulman denies he's too close to business, though.

"There's always going to be that criticism. Some people don't want anything to change," he said.

Business leaders also deny they're favored over citizens' interests, saying that without economic growth, problems will worsen, not improve.

"We're the economic driver. We provide the jobs and keep the economy going," said Pam J. Klahr, president and CEO of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce.

Norman, a Turf Valley resident, has repeatedly delayed Mangione Family Enterprises' long-approved plans for a major mixed-use community on the 809-acre hotel/golf club property near his home, though the basic zoning was approved more than two decades ago.

He's hammered on county planners and local news organizations to raise questions about the project's effect on infrastructure. He also pushed county health officials for a closer examination of the golf courses for chemicals in the ground. That led to the Mangiones' disclosure that there were chemical concentrations near a utility shed, which brought state environmental officials into the fray. Norman also tried to block plans for a larger, non-union supermarket at Turf Valley with a union-backed petition drive that gathered more than 9,600 signatures, and his allies have filed numerous lawsuits in state and federal courts attacking the county's development review and zoning process.

But the Mangiones said through a spokeswoman that although the opposition has frustrated and delayed their plans, the project is still on course.

"We see these really as delaying tactics by a tiny faction of opponents who always do anything possible to stall development in their backyard," said Gina Ellrich, the spokeswoman.

Tancordo, a former county health inspector and 20-year resident, says Howard is too lenient about not closing places when roaches, mice or their leavings are found - a charge denied by health officer Dr. Peter L. Beilenson.

Kohn, a retired 16-year resident of North Laurel, is focused on frequent emergency room crowding at ever-expanding Howard County General Hospital, a subsidiary of the Johns Hopkins Health System, where officials say a $105 million expansion will help ease the problem. He wants health care capacity factored into county growth-control laws.

Beltram, a 44-year county resident, got riled several years ago over a last-minute council move to allow a major church expansion near her Ellicott City home. She used her political experience and knowledge of how government works to organize her angry neighbors, start a referendum drive and go to court.

She's still steamed about it and about how landowners and their lawyers increasingly side-step the standard rezoning process for one parcel by asking the County Council to change zoning regulations that affect an entire category of properties.

Lately, her sights are fixed on east Columbia County Councilman Calvin Ball, who she feels is too cozy with developers and their lawyers. Ball held a $250-per-ticket luncheon April 7 that drew a number of business and development donors.

He denies they have any undue influence but said he understands the criticism.

"We as a county encourage people to come out. That's a testament, though, to all the things we're doing well. When the house is on fire, you don't complain that the doilies don't match."

None of the critics is planning to leave Howard County.

"Overall, it's not a bad place to live," Tancordo said, rating the county an "8" on a scale of 1 to 10.

"I think they shuffle a lot of things under the rug, though," he said.

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