Council Oks Help For Church

Two Other High-interest Issues Are Deferred Till Sept.

August 02, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,

One of three contentious issues was resolved by the Howard County Council on Thursday, with the others put off until September, after an August recess.

The council unanimously approved a resolution to help an Ellicott City church cut interest costs on loans for new buildings, but postponed a vote on a new rezoning process for Columbia's village centers until Sept. 1, when new development review fees for builders may also be decided.

"I am confident we will not be violating the establishment [of religion] clause on constitutionality," council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said as she voted to aid Glen Mar United Methodist Church, which wants to put child care programs in the new buildings.

Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, and the other members rejected final admonitions from two opponents of the measure who were allowed to speak as part of an elongated public hearing just before the vote.

Stephen Meskin of Columbia and Ken Stevens of Savage warned that approving the resolution would be aiding religion, but Meskin knew he had lost.

"It's clear the council does not want to separate church and state," he said. Russell Swatek of Columbia argued the child care intended for the church buildings isn't needed.

But Richard Story, CEO of the county Economic Development Authority, urged approval, saying lower-cost child care would be available by lowering the church's construction costs and that is needed. Sigaty and others agreed.

"Initially I had some concerns, but those concerns have been laid to rest," said Calvin Ball, an East Columbia Democrat. Jen Terrasa, a King's Contrivance Democrat, had the most reservations.

"This is something I really struggled with, but nothing in here is intended to promote religion in any way," she said. Terrasa wants the council apprised of annual forms required for the church to guarantee that the buildings are being used as intended.

The bill setting new fees on builders to control sediment was tabled, and Sigaty said she hopes the extra time will allow for some kind of compromise agreement.

Michael Harrison, a spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, agreed.

On village centers, the council attached 17 amendments to the bill without approving them, and postponed the issue until Sept. 1. More amendments may be filed until Aug. 28, Sigaty said. The delay allows the public more time to examine and comment on amendments.

All three bills attracted interest at a recent public hearing that lasted nearly five hours.

The village center bill would create a new zoning process for potential redevelopment of eight of Columbia's nine village centers that would allow property owners to request changes directly from the county, without first going through General Growth Properties, Columbia's master developer. The old Rouse Co., and now GGP, has sole legal ability to seek changes in Columbia under special zoning created in the 1960s. But Rouse sold the centers in 2000, and several have been resold since then.

A group of speakers at the hearing urged council members to postpone a vote on the village center rezoning bill at least until the council reconvenes after its annual August hiatus Sept. 1 to give residents time to review the amendments.

A larger group of witnesses urged inclusion of some kind of affordable housing requirement for any village center that adds housing. The council seemed stuck on how to do that at the public discussion.

Kimco Realty, which owns six of the centers, had proposed building up to 500 apartments in place of the stores at the Wilde Lake center, which has numerous commercial vacancies.

In the church resolution, the council's approval of Economic Development Revenue Bonds would not cost the county money or obligate taxpayers for the church's new buildings, but would in effect allow the church to get a lower interest rate on its loans from Columbia Bank by "borrowing" the county's ability to sell tax free bonds.

Church members argue the child care programs in the new buildings are not religious and would benefit the community, while critics said the deal would breach the constitutional ban against government-sponsored religion, and set a bad precedent.

The bill setting sediment control review fees that builders would have to pay the Soil Conservation District in Woodbine also drew heated testimony from developers angry that they would face new expenses in the midst of the recession, when they argue their very survival is threatened.

The dispute arose last winter when County Executive Ken Ulman proposed absorbing the work of two district reviewers into county government and cutting the $220,000 in county funding used to pay them. But district officials objected to what they felt was a potential loss of independent reviews of builders' plans. Ulman did cut the county funding, but district manager Robert Ensor proposed new fees to pay his employees and keep the work.

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