The Howard County Council approved legislation Wednesday to declare the Long Reach Village Center a blight zone, which will allow the county to purchase and redevelop portions of the property.
The passage of the law, which declares the area "an urban renewal zone," is required for the county to purchase the property, because county code prohibits the government from owning and operating a commercial operation within its jurisdiction.
The council passed the bill 4-1, with Greg Fox, the lone Republican on the council, voting against.
County council member Calvin Ball, who represents Long Reach and has been a proponent of the plan since it was announced in January, called the vote a "bold move."
"I know that this is a new law in that we haven’t used it before. I know that it’s uncomfortable for some folks; however, I think it’s vital for the revitalization of the Long Reach Village Center and Long Reach," Ball said.
According to Mark Thompson, the county's director of downtown development, the majority owner of the village center, Long Reach Village Associates LLC, a corporation affiliated with Pikesville-based America's Realty, approached the county about purchasing its holdings in the center sometime in the fall 2013.
The county plans to purchase all the commercial storefronts north of Stonehouse, the Columbia Association owned village community building, except for Deli Town, a stand alone building that is privately owned. The 55,000 sq. ft. Safeway space, formerly occupied by the Family Market and located to the east, may be purchased and re-purposed by Celebration Church. The church announced its plans to redevelop that space along with the county in January.
While all four council Democrats voted in favor of the legislation, there were some concerns.
Council members Mary Kay Sigaty and Jen Terrasa said "it breaks (their) heart(s)" to call an area of Columbia a blight zone, but that it is necessary to achieve revitalization.
"I know that the Long Reach Village Center needs our help," Sigaty said.
Terrasa said: "Long Reach is a community in need, there's no question about that. ... It's really, really declined and we need to do something."
Among Fox's concerns about the legislation were purchase price, terms of which have not yet been revealed, and setting a bad precedent.
"I’m also concerned not just about what that says but also about what that potentially does to property owners in this area," Fox said. "There’s also other areas of the county where things need to be addressed, including other village centers and Route 1."
Council member Courtney Watson said "there are legitimate positions on both sides of this issue," but that the situation in Long Reach is unique.
"While I understand the arguments on either sides of this issue, we have to use every tool that we have," Watson said. "Even though we are one of the wealthiest counties in the country we cannot fall into the trap of thinking everyone in this county is wealthy. … And we need to be ready to step up wherever people need help."
Specific redevelopment plans for the center have not yet been created, according to Thompson. Thompson has said previously the county wants to look to the residents, the village master plan and a joint study being conducted on eight of Columbia's village centers, for guidance.
One possibility floated by County Executive Ken Ulman is to relocate the Howard County Arts Council close to the existing Columbia Art Center, which would create an arts hub in the center.