Two Oakland Mills residents driving revitalization

Two longtime Columbia residents are making changes to revitalize their village

When Bill McCormack and Ginny Thomas moved to Columbia's village of Oakland Mills in 1973 and 1972, respectively, the community was much different than it is today.

There were only five villages in Columbia (now there are 10) and the population was nowhere near the 100,000 it is now.

But McCormack and Thomas are not afraid of change. In fact, they are willing to embrace it, and are leading a coordinated, grass roots effort to affect change in Oakland Mills by creating the Reinventing Oakland Mills Task Force.

The task force has zeroed on what they think is the key issue plaguing the community: a concentration of low-income, rental housing units surrounding the village center.

"The heart and soul of the issue in this village ... is housing," McCormack said. "There is too much subsidized and low-income housing and it has negative impacts in the community."

And while Oakland Mills is the only village that has created a task force to address the issue, it's not the only village that is suffering, according to McCormack. He claims that other older villages – Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice, Owen Brown and Long Reach – could be experiencing a similar plight, which would make it seem like the concentration is an incidental consequence of an aging Columbia.

"What we are trying to do here in Oakland Mills is, number one, look out for us, and number two, set the trend for the county for how to fix this," Thomas said. "We want to be the prototype for how you reinvent an area so that it thrives long term."

The task force is made up of 16 members, and includes the entire village Board of Directors, which Thomas and McCormack co-chair, citizens and other stakeholders. The goal of the task force is to reboot the Oakland Mills Village Center Master Plan, a guiding document created by the village board in 2007 to articulate the residents' vision for their village, specifically their village center.

Village Master Plans were filed with the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, who uses them when considering zoning and planning changes to each village.

"The county compares our community plan with the development plan, and there has to be a fair amount of consistency for it to go through," McCormack said. "It's the leverage that the village board has in charting the course for the future."

But McCormack and Thomas, as well as others, think there was a fatal flaw in the Oakland Mills plan's design: it only included the village center and not the surrounding neighborhoods of Talbott Springs and Oakland Mills.

"People seem to agree that we can't just do the village center. You have to do the surrounding area if you are going to reinvent Oakland Mills," Thomas said.

The task force's housing committee said 45 percent of all housing in the two nearby neighborhoods is rental housing, and a portion of those units are affordable housing projects. This, McCormack says, has led to a concentration of residents with lower incomes, which in turn has had an adverse effect on the property values of homeowners in the neighborhood.

"They have more impact on her property value and my property value than we do," McCormack said of the apartment complexes. "The concentration of apartments around the village centers is a fatal design flaw."

McCormack and Thomas argue that deconcentrating the housing is a key first step to revitalizing the community.

"We moved to Columbia, we moved to the Rouse dream to get integration, both racial and economic for our kids," Thomas said. "But now it has gotten to the extreme where our communities are being disrespected and dumped on."

The task force is still in the process of finalizing the update, and McCormack estimates having a final document to approve in December.

In the meantime, he and Thomas are meeting with anyone and everyone who will listen.

"We've met with a lot of folks: property owners, developers," McCormack said.

McCormack, 66, said he spends 40 hours a week performing task force and village board related work. Thomas, 73, serves on two other volunteer boards, but is just as committed as her counterpart. And while the task force is serious business, it's easy to see what keeps them going.

"We are Frick and Frack; we are having a lot of fun on this," McCormack said. "She's got the contacts and the experience, I am the nuts and bolts guy."

Thomas, who served eight years in the Maryland House of Delegates and two terms on the County Council, echoed her counterpart: "It really works great."

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