Ulman was key player in Columbia remake plan

February 14, 2010|By Larry Carson

Maryland's county executives garner lots of public attention, both positive and negative, for good reason.

The job is probably the most powerful public post in Maryland short of governor, which naturally focuses public attention on that one person who sets policy, hires and fires key players, and largely decides where the taxpayers' money should go.

A young, ambitious executive like Howard's Ken Ulman seems to hold most of the cards.

But when the issue is land use, Howard County's executive takes a back seat to the five County Council members, who double as the county's zoning board.

In the recently concluded legislative marathon that ended with a complex 30-year plan for remaking downtown Columbia, it was the council that held the public's attention for months of televised hearings, work sessions and behind-the-scenes meetings with interest groups, county lawyers and planners leading up to the Feb. 1 vote.

Despite their more visible role, however, the three council members who represent Columbia say Ulman was a key player in their three-month review and final passage of the downtown master plan and rezoning.

"We've had a lot of meetings he participated in, some that lasted until 3 a.m.," said Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents the villages of King's Contrivance and Owen Brown.

"As the other Columbia kid involved in this, my sense is that he has the same special bond with Columbia that I do," Terrasa said. She and Ulman both grew up in the planned town.

Council members are proud of the end product, even if some residents disagree.

"They've made the bills better," but not good enough, said Alan Klein, spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown. Hours of effort in long, post-midnight meetings don't guarantee results, he said. "I've never been one to measure things by the amount of effort taken," Klein said. "I don't do my best work at 3 a.m."

In his annual State of the County speech last month before the Howard County Chamber of Commerce - a major supporter of the plan - Ulman reminded members of his original role.

As a county councilman, Ulman, a Democrat, represented central Columbia, and as zoning board chairman in January 2004, he voted with other board members to reject the original Rouse Co. request for more residential density to allow 1,600 new homes to be built on parking lots behind Merriweather Post Pavilion, which was slated to be enclosed as a smaller, year-round theater, or sold.

"That request had no detail, no plan, no clear criteria, no benchmarks, no specific benefits for the existing community, and none of the creativity and vision on which Columbia was founded," Ulman said.

He also pushed for the October 2005 planning charrette on Columbia's future that evolved into a heavily revised General Growth Properties' 30-year plan.

During the recent plan review, Ulman was particularly interested in providing for Merriweather Post Pavilion's future, according to Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents Town Center on the council. He also provided vital support in other ways.

"He made his staff available to us. That's invaluable," Sigaty said. Ulman himself has labeled Jessica Feldmark, his chief of staff, the "unsung hero" of the effort, but Sigaty, Terrasa and Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said hours of work were provided by planning director Marsha McLaughlin, senior planner Bill Mackey and others.

"He didn't sit for 10-hour meetings drafting and redrafting amendments," Terrasa said, but was heavily involved in other ways.

Ball said Ulman acted as both an advocate for the plan and a resource for the council members.

"They have many subject-matter experts," Ball said about the administration, noting Economic Development CEO Dick Story, among others. As the council's review of the two major bills moved forward, "there would be a list of things we might talk about four or five issues," he said.

"We're in constant communication with council members and folks in the county," Ulman said, helping to go over major elements of the master plan, such as environmental sustainability, plans for transit and the last weekend revision of the affordable housing amendment.

Skeptics such as Klein note Ulman's relative silence on the 5,500 residential units the plan allows and recall the executive's campaign comments just before the November 2006 election that that would be far too many homes.

""Fifty-five hundred homes is ludicrous," he said then in published reports. "It will never happen. It's too intense. There's no way we can handle it."

Now, he says, his view hasn't changed, based on Columbia's current infrastructure.

"Fifty-five hundred units today with current infrastructure would not work," Ulman said. But with changes, it might.

"Significant transportation improvements have to be made. If people just stay in their cars, there's no way the full plan would be accommodated," Ulman said. A third interchange to U.S. 29 "has to happen" for the full plan to be completed.

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