Most Columbia Association board members favor the new concept plan for Symphony Woods and are ready to vote their approval at a board meeting Thursday, Feb. 14.
"I think it's a great plan, and I hope the board is ready to vote in favor of it on Thursday," said Gregg Schwind, board member from Hickory Ridge. "We've been talking about a plan for Symphony Woods Park for years now, and the overwhelming response from the board and residents is very positive, so I'm optimistic."
Introduced to the public on Jan. 18, the Inner Arbor Plan includes a CA headquarters, a 1,750 space parking garage, an iconic interactive sculpture, three restaurants, a children's theater, the relocation of Toby's Dinner Theatre, a tree-top amphitheater and an elevated canopy walk.
Dorsey's Search representative Tom Coale, who has advocated for the plan, shares Schwind's optimism.
"I'm confident that members of the board have heard public sentiment in favor of this, and I anticipate the board vote will reflect that public sentiment," Coale said.
While most members favor the concept plan, some are hesitant to vote on it Thursday.
"Trying to bring this thing to a vote after such a short time makes absolutely no sense," Oakland Mills representative Alex Hekimian said. "We take a lot of pride in our public involvement process. Three weeks for something this major? No."
Harper's Choice representative Cynthia Coyle said she supports the plan, but agrees with Hekimian.
"I do not feel we have done the right thing by the public (by setting a Thursday vote on the plan)," she said.
Coyle said CA should have more opportunities for the public to comment before moving forward.
On the Feb. 14 meeting agenda, the plan is scheduled for discussion within a board subcommittee, which is made up of Coale, Schwind and Wilde Lake representative Regina Clay.
In order to be voted on during the meeting, the three-person committee must unanimously vote to move the plan to the entire board. The 10-member CA board will need a two-thirds majority to approve the five staff recommendations on the plan.
Traditionally, an agenda item is not voted on until at least one meeting after it exits the committee, where a simple majority is needed to approve it. However, it is not uncommon for the board to expedite the process if there is overwhelming support.
The first two staff recommendations call for the approval of the concept plan. The remaining three will allow CA staff to begin setting up the Inner Arbor Trust, a 501(c)3 organization that will manage the development of the park.
Clay said she also is in favor of the plan.
"I think it shows a lot of innovation and vibrancy. I'm excited about it," she said.
Clay added that it is important to remember that the plan is conceptual, and there still is time to vet specifics as it moves through phases of the county's 16-step approval process, which is mandated by the 30-year downtown Columbia master plan.
"Some people don't agree with the CA headquarters or other certain aspects of the plan, but the majority of the people are excited about something being done there," Clay said. "These aren't definite things; they all can be worked out."
Town Center representative Suzanne Waller said she is also supportive of the concept plan but will reserve her final judgment until she hears perspective from other board members at the meeting.
"It's a wonderful plan, and it's bold," Waller said. "But I'll be asking a lot of questions."
Among Waller's questions are the roles of Howard County government and the Howard Hughes Corp., the owner of Merriweather Post Pavilion and the crescent property behind the amphitheater.
"I would like CA to have greater certainty of what part each of the players is going to play in this plan," Waller said.
For Hekimian, that question, and others, signal that the plan is not ready to be voted on by the board.
"CA is being asked to approve a lot without corresponding written commitments from Howard Hughes or the county," Hekimian said. "We just can't make assumptions. There is nothing we can count on from Howard Hughes and the county. It is premature for us to go forward."
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