Heat Builds On Key Bills

Howard Council Mulls Bills On Builders' Fees, Villages, Church Bonds

July 26, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Political heat is building over three bills involving religion, higher builders' fees and the future of Columbia's village centers as the Howard County Council heads for its annual August recess.

All three bills are due for a final work session Monday and a vote Thursday, though most council members favor delaying a vote on the village center bill until Sept. 4 to give residents more time to study amendments.

"Based on feedback from village members, I'm leaning very strongly toward extending its life and voting in early September," Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said about the village center bill. The West Columbia Democrat's district includes four of the eight affected centers, including the struggling Wilde Lake Village Center, Columbia's oldest.

Sigaty said four of the five council members must approve extending the bill's life for the September vote to be possible, and the votes appear to be there. The measure was introduced in June and tabled until this month.

Democrats Calvin Ball and Jennifer Terrasa, who represent parts of Columbia, said they'd rather see a vote in September, and Greg Fox, a Republican, said he does not object. Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said she'd rather consider amendments, then withdraw and resubmit the bill after a review by county agencies.

Several speakers at a public hearing that lasted until midnight Monday urged council members not to vote on the village center bill until September, if then. Others urged council members to include a requirement for below-market-price housing in any bill.

"We are keenly aware that our village center is in crisis," testified Nancy Alexander, chairwoman of the Wilde Lake Village board, but she, along with board members and residents from other villages, asked for a delayed vote, even if it means reintroducing the legislation and restarting the process in the fall.

The council could postpone a vote on the bill until its Sept. 4 legislative session, but the bill would automatically die after that under current rules.

Wilde Lake Village Center is half-empty, and a request from owner Kimco Realty to redevelop it with apartments without having to ask Columbia's master developer, General Growth Properties, to submit the rezoning request to the county set off the debate last year.

The bill under discussion would remove General Growth Properties as a gatekeeper for changes in village centers while adding protections for residents wary of developers' intentions. But some contend that the issue requires further study.

Several village representatives said the long list of 17 possible amendments, changed and added to as late as the day of the hearing, was not fully reviewed or understood by residents.

"Our board has not been able to meet; we've had no quorum due to vacations," said Cynthia Coyle, Harper's Choice representative on the Columbia Association board of directors.

"There's not been ample time to prepare testimony," said Philip Kirsch of Wilde Lake, chairman of the CA board.

But Joan Lancos of Hickory Ridge said her village doesn't want a delay beyond early September, and others said they support the bill with some amendments.

Affordable housing advocates proposed adding a formula that would take into account existing subsidized housing near some centers.

The formula promoted by representatives of the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition would require at least 30 percent below-market housing divided into three income ranges for households with incomes under $40,000 a year, from $40,000 to $60,000, and from $60,000 to $80,000 a year. If a village center already has housing in those ranges, a builder could provide 10 percent of new homes in lower price ranges and make a donation to a housing fund.

Two other bills also drew considerable interest.

Several speakers strongly opposed a resolution approving $10.1 million in Maryland Economic Development Revenue Bonds to cut borrowing costs for new buildings at Glen Mar United Methodist Church's new campus in Ellicott City.

Church leaders said they want to help the community by providing day care, before- and after-school care and summer camps for children. Critics said the aid would breach constitutional prohibitions against separation of church and state. The bonds carry no cost or risk to county taxpayers, under Maryland law.

"The decision to relocate [the church] was driven by a desire to better serve the community," Amanda Sayers said, reading a statement from the Rev. Andy Lunt, who was out of town. The child care programs the church plans are not only nonprofit, but they are subsidized by the church to the tune of $30,000 last summer, Sayers said, even though most of the children are not members of the church. "This is an opportunity to broaden the number of services available to the residents of the county," Sayers read.

But critics were not swayed.

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