Old Idea Is Returning

Political notebook

Incorporation Would Give Columbia Control Over Zoning Regulations

July 19, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

It's been 13 years since the failure of the last real effort to convert Columbia into an incorporated municipality, but some feel the current suggestion that the town's homeowners association seek power over zoning is tied to that old debate.

"If they can get control of zoning, they'll also be asking for incorporation," said Pearl Atkinson Stewart, the Columbia Association board member with the longest tenure and institutional memory. "I can't see it going anywhere."

In fact, deputy county solicitor Paul Johnson said that based on his experience, he feels incorporation would be the only way for the town's residents to get zoning authority, an opinion shared by the Maryland attorney general's office, said spokeswoman Raquel Guillory.

"I don't think there's any way to do it outside of that," Johnson said.

Others, like CA board member Alex Hekimian, who once backed holding a referendum on incorporation, said that what people want now is something less, perhaps a sort of Columbia planning board.

"We don't think the Columbia vision can be protected by the county government," he said, because county officials necessarily must look at the whole county.

Incorporation isn't being discussed, he said.

Phillip Nelson, CA's new president, said he, too, would like to see the homeowners organization wield more power over land use, but he's not advocating incorporation.

"A private company [General Growth Properties] has zoning authority now," he said, acknowledging that GGP can only request a zoning change from the county and cannot change zoning by itself. "The [CA] board can't even do that," Nelson said. He will explore the idea and report back to the board, he said.

The incorporation issue has come up repeatedly over the years, Atkinson Stewart said, but has never come close to succeeding. It was discussed last in 2000, but six years earlier, a small group calling itself the Columbia Municipal League tried a petition drive to get incorporation on the county ballot. After two years, they were not able to gather even half the signatures needed.

"Because Columbia is such a desirable place to live, nobody gives a damn," Neil Noble told The Sun in November 1996 as the group disbanded.

Now it is on some people's lips again as the County Council debates a bill that would allow ailing village centers to redevelop with large numbers of residential units, something some residents feel will eventually kill the town's basic concept - convenient retail centers amid each village to serve people's daily needs.

With preliminary work starting on the huge Wegmans supermarket in east Columbia, the pressure on the village centers will only increase, they fear.

Board Chairman Philip W. Kirsch said the board hasn't discussed incorporation. The notion under examination, he said, is one of 27 performance goals set out by the board for evaluating Nelson, who is a former city manager.

It says this:

"Work with the state legislature to initiate and place into effect a new law that would give Columbia jurisdiction over its own zoning and platting matters while giving village boards a prominent recommendation role in such matters."

It's a very preliminary idea he said.

"We're looking into it. Where we go is another question." Kirsch said.

A range of leaders said giving zoning power to a private group would be a mistake or impossible.

"Why would you give that power to a homeowners association?" asked Grace Kubofcik, who expressed her personal opinion, though she is president of the county chapter of the League of Women Voters.

County Executive Ken Ulman is against it, too, he said, though he is very impressed with Nelson and feels Nelson's city manager experience will serve Columbia well.

"Would you give that power to Coca Cola?" wondered County Councilwoman Jen Terassa. "CA should have a voice," she said, but in some other form.

State Sen. James N. Robey, a former county executive who leads the delegation's three senators, said the zoning idea "causes me a lot of concerns." Residents have a say in land use through their elected officials, he said.

Del. Guy Guzzone, a former County Council member who is chairman of the county's eight state delegates, felt the same way.

"The concept of giving a private entity zoning power would be really outside the norm," he said, noting that CA board members are often elected with just a few hundred votes.

Fellow Del. Elizabeth Bobo, another former county executive who represents west Columbia, including the struggling Wilde Lake Village Center, said she's opposed incorporation in the past.

As for giving Columbia zoning power, "I have no idea if that's possible or desirable," she said, but she's going to look into it.

It's never too early ...

The next county and state elections may be far from most voters' minds, but candidates are busily gathering funds and recruits as the two major parties seek to bolster their strength.

Three events occurred last week. On Sunday, Democrat Calvin Ball attracted about 50 people to a breezy pavilion in Meadowbrook Park to help raise a few thousand dollars with hot dogs and hamburgers grilled by county police union members, who back the incumbent.

On Wednesday evening, Jeff Robinson, a 51-year-old North Laurel resident, father of two, and first-time Republican candidate running for the House of Delegates in Democrat-dominated District 13, announced his intentions before about 75 people at an event at Savage Mill. Robinson is a vice president of Fortress Technology Group, a technology consulting firm, he said.

On Thursday night, Democrat Jon Weinstein, who's seeking one of two delegates' seats in Republican-dominated District 9a, also held an event.

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