Issues fuel passions of crowd at West Columbia primary forum

African American Coalition endorses Sigaty, Bobo

September 05, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

A passionate, cheering, standing-room-only crowd of more than 260 people gathered in Harper's Choice on Tuesday night at a primary candidates forum, putting the simmering differences among West Columbia Democrats into sharp relief.

Partisans at the event at Kahler Hall seemed to compete to be the loudest as District 4 County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty and Alan Klein debated, along with veteran Del. Elizabeth Bobo and John Bailey, her challenger in District 12b.

The fault line, as usual, was the view of the 30-year downtown Columbia redevelopment plan. Some call the project the ultimate in smart growth, a venture that will ensure the planned town's future prosperity, while others say it will ruin Columbia's quality of life and erase treasured community concepts. The rezoning approved unanimously by the County Council in February calls for up to 5,500 new housing units and nearly 6 million square feet of retail, office, hotel and cultural space to be built over three decades to urbanize central Columbia.

"It boils down to who trusts who to do what," Klein said. "We as citizens need to hold them accountable. That's what I think the County Council has not done."

Sigaty said "the chasm is the result of misinformation that Mr. Klein is putting out. The plan is 100 percent enforceable. This is a regulatory document" that she said Maryland courts recognize as enforceable. "This isn't us trusting the developer."

Bobo and Klein say the number of housing units should be scaled back to 1,600, and contend that the council gave in too much to the developer, General Growth Properties. Sigaty and Bailey argued that the council built in a trust fund to provide affordable housing, ironclad guarantees to safeguard the public on traffic and a variety of amenities.

With early voting starting and the primary election just two weeks away, the growing political heat produced some unusually sharp candidate comments, especially as the nearly two-hour session ended.

Klein, a former teacher and an organizational consultant who led the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown for the past five years, told the mostly liberal Democrats supporting him that when Republicans pushed for the invasion of Iraq, many Democrats went along with "vested interests" supporting the war.

"Our local version of that is right here in downtown," Klein said, arguing that General Growth "has a vested interest. We ignore that at our peril." He had argued that the council's plan contains no specific requirement for lower-cost housing, will cause traffic gridlock and is not enforceable.

After the debate, he said he was not comparing the downtown plan to the Iraq war, but was drawing attention to the perils of persuasion. "These are social justice issues," he said.

Sigaty had no immediate response to the war analogy, but Sigaty backer Roger Caplan, a Democrat and local public relations man in the audience, took offense.

"Comparing a war with over 4,000 dead Americans to a zoning dispute? It's a little repulsive. I thought that was way out of bounds. Bad taste," he said.

Bailey, a 33-year-old teacher and Hickory Ridge board member, made a different kind of provocative statement in his closing remarks.

"It's time for a fresh direction and a fresh perspective, a little younger perspective in Annapolis," he said to a chorus of boos and gasps from the mostly middle-age and older audience. He later said he meant no offense to Bobo, who is 66.

Later, Bobo, a former County Council member and county executive, said she was not personally offended. "I'm happier at the age of 66 than I've ever been in my life," she said. Known as a strong advocate for the environment, public transit, campaign finance reform and other causes, Bobo says her job as a state delegate is "to speak out loudly and clearly," even if in disagreement with other Democrats.

Klein's position on low-income housing in a rebuilt Wilde Lake Village Center appeared to vary somewhat from what he told a different audience during a forum sponsored Saturday by the African American Coalition at Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church on Cedar Lane.

There, he and Sigaty said village residents believe there is already substantial subsidized housing in the community and are concerned that requiring it in new units built at the village center might create too great a concentration. "There's already a significant spectrum of housing in Wilde Lake," Klein said.

But Tuesday night, Klein added to his general criticism of the housing portion of the downtown plan by saying there is no requirement for affordable housing at the Wilde Lake center. He called the omissions "a violation of Columbia's values."

Sigaty replied that the housing trust fund in the downtown plan will provide money for new construction, rent subsidies and help for first-time buyers, among other things. Developers working within the plan must show how they will provide lower-income housing to proceed, she said.

African American Coalition endorsements

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