Elkridge residents don't want the once-per-decade redrawing of County Council district lines to dilute their political influence, but some wonder if the interests of the county's oldest community are tied more closely to those of Ellicott City's in District 1 or to the rest of the U.S. 1 corridor, which is now divided among three districts.
More than two dozen Elkridge residents and several people from Ellicott City filled a room Monday night at the Elkridge Library to tell Howard County's redistricting commission to keep communities intact in one district, though only four people chose to speak. It was a much better turnout than at the commission's first public hearing May 24 in Clarksville, when less than a half-dozen people attended.
Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, expressed a feeling held by many residents that the area has been neglected by the county government.
"So often our representation is from people not in the [U.S. 1] corridor," he told the seven-member commission. "We don't want our voice or interests watered down by being pulled into a new area."
Redistricting occurs after each federal census, to keep districts roughly equal in population.
District 1, represented by Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson, is the most populous of Howard's five council districts, with 62,435 residents, according to the 2010 Census. It will have to shrink by about 5,000 people to make the districts even when the lines are redrawn, raising concerns about which neighborhoods might be shifted to adjoining districts. District 3, covering North Laurel, Savage and part of southern Columbia, is the smallest at 52,086 people, about 5,000 below the average.
Commission member David Marker, a veteran of the redistricting process a decade ago, told Johnson he was intrigued by his "focus on the corridor" and asked where he thought Elkridge's greater interests lie.
"Our history relates to old Ellicott City," Johnson replied. He noted, however, that recent zoning changes designed to spur redevelopment of the U.S. 1 corridor from Laurel to the Baltimore County line also tied the Elkridge area to other communities along the highway.
U.S. 1 is "marked for more density, more people, more stuff," Johnson said. "We don't want to be sucked into the other districts."
Doug Kornreich of Hanover, near the Anne Arundel County line and where a proposed CSX railroad cargo transfer station could be located, said, "This part of the county has been neglected, and one way to fix it is by having strong representation."
Parts of Elkridge currently are in District 1 and in District 2, he said, represented by East Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball. The district also includes Jessup and East Columbia.
Kornreich, whose wife, Leslie, ran unsuccessfully for school board last year, said its members should be elected by district instead of countywide. "We have zero representation on that Board of Education," he said.
Diane Butler, president of the St. Johns Community Association in Ellicott City and a member of the Republican Central Committee, pointed out that about 30 houses at the edge of her 1,000-home community are now in District 4, which covers West Columbia and Fulton. May Kay Sigaty, a West Columbia Democrat, represents that district.
"Columbia has overtaken three districts and they're only one-third of the county," Butler said. "They need to have their own district."
In past years, Republicans have proposed a similar idea, which would concentrate heavily Democratic Columbia residents together, giving Republicans a better chance of winning more than the one council seat they now hold.
Districts 2, 3 and 4 include large portions of Columbia. That leaves most county Republicans packed into District 5 — represented by Fulton Republican Greg Fox and covering the western and southern parts of the county — and District 1.
Dale Schumacher, who lives near Belmont, the historic 18th-century estate in Elkridge, said there are advantages to mixing people from different areas in one council district, rather than keeping communities together.
"It's better to mix areas and not make it insular," he said, "One of the problems the county could face is that our neighbors in District 5 don't appreciate the traffic, the noise … we have." He said that "geographically, historically, Elkridge aligns along the Patapsco Valley, which includes Ellicott City, not the rest of U.S. 1.
"You hit the nail on the head on the difficulties in drawing boundaries," Marker replied. He noted that if District 1 only covered the U.S. 1 corridor, Elkridge would lose political power.
"You have three of five [council members] who pay attention" to the U.S. 1 corridor, Marker said. No matter what the commission recommends, some group will likely be unhappy, Marker said. "There is no right answer."
Chairman Larry Walker said the commission will hold its first work session at 7 p.m. Monday in the George Howard Building. A recommended plan or two will be hashed out over the summer, and a hearing will be held Sept. 19 to obtain public comment before a final report goes to the County Council by mid-October. The council has final say.
No council members attended the meeting, but Watson said later that splitting the U.S. 1 corridor among three council districts gives residents more political representation, as does splitting Columbia among three districts. Creating a single district for the U.S. 1 corridor would reduce that power, she said.
"It seems like a large change," agreed Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a District 3 Democrat. "And I'm not sure I see the benefit."