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With 2016 session underway, Howard delegation hears residents' concerns

Howard County delegations open floor for public comment.

The Howard County delegation to the General Assembly opened the floor to testimony from residents on statewide issues Thursday night, drawing reactions on issues ranging from studying oysters in Maryland to clustered housing on Haviland Mills.

Topping the list were long-running concerns about noise levels caused by Merriweather Post Pavilion and overall transparency in the county's school system.

Several residents sounded off on a 2013 bill that created separate noise regulations for outdoor venues like Merriweather Post Pavilion. The bill drew varied responses from residents who urged the delegation for a repeal.

Carol Galbraith, of Columbia, called the noise from the outdoor concerts a "criminal disturbance of peace" that "undermines civil order" and subjects residents to "acoustic assaults" that have sometimes forced residents to hunker down in the basement.

"It feels like a crime scene," Galbraith said.

The ordinance permits sounds 95 decibels or less between 9 a.m. and 11 p.m and 55 decibels or less between 11 and 11:30 p.m. within a quarter-mile radius of outdoor concert venues with a capacity of 15,000 people.

Columbia resident Kim MacLeau rejected propositions the noise could cause permanent hearing damage.

"I still hear fine," said MacLeau, whose family moved to the area in 1970. "I would like the noise to be louder so I don't have to pay to go the Merriweather."

Linda Wengel, chairwoman of the Town Center Village Board, said the delegation could return the decibel level outside the quarter-mile radius from  72 to 65 decibels, the current state limit for residential areas, she said.

Calling the pavilion "Columbia's cultural center" and the "point of pride," Zac Peksa said he rarely hears sounds from the pavilion, even though he lives two miles away. And when he does, he described it as a "magical moment in the sky."

Jane Winer, a Columbia resident who lives 1 mile from the pavilion, questioned the accuracy of a study done by the third-party company Cerami on the noise levels in October last year. Winder said the 2013 legislation was "shameful" and showed "preferential treatment" for Howard Hughes, the developer that owns the pavilion.

Russ Swatek recommended the delegation "propose more mature noise legislation" that increases penalties if the pavilion bypasses noise levels.

"Howard County prides itself for being a progressive county in a progressive state," Swatek said. "Please get on board."

'Obfuscating the truth'

At the heels of a unanimous delegation decision to launch a state-level investigation into Howard County Public School System's handling of public information requests, residents urged the delegation to support retention of school officials' emails.

Without ensuring emails are retained, the public information act would be rendered "almost meaningless," said David Yungmann. "All of our communication is email-based."

Judy George agreed, saying she was "thoroughly disgusted" by the school system "obfuscating the truth."

"We're squandering [our time] on stupid stuff that has nothing to do with what our children need in the classroom," George said.

Christina Delmont-Small, a candidate for the Board of Education, echoed her testimony.

"This is the opposite of what a public body should be doing," she said.

Yungmann said the costs of retaining data and storage are "plummeting." Even if it wasn't, he says, "it's our money."

Drafted by Del. Warren Miller, the legislation passed on Wednesday would require the state public access ombudsman to investigate county school officials' denials of public information requests from July 1, 2012 — when Superintendent Renee Foose began her tenure — through Dec. 31, 2015.

Legislation to create a school board partially elected by districts was shot down on Feb. 3. Although nine of the 12 members voted to support it, a majority of the county's three state senators did not, barring the bill from moving on to the General Assembly. The plan would have required five of the board members to be elected by council district instead of by countywide vote. Two seats would remain at-large.

Barb Krupiarz also voiced her support for a special education bill that would require written parental consent if the school system proposes to enroll the child into another program, restrain or seclude the child and suggest other changes to the student's instruction and assessment.

Krupiarz also urged the delegation to require the school system to provide written minutes of its proceedings.

"Howard County schools are first," Krupiarz said, "and lately its been the first in the lack of transparency."

Alcohol licensing

In a last-minute move, the delegation voted to pass a bill introduced Thursday that would carve an exception to alcohol license application requirements for continuing care retirement communities.

If passed by the Maryland General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan, the bill would allow licenses to be issued to a manager and two officers. Residents in continuing care retirement communities would be able to drink wine bought from outside the community under specific conditions.

Speaking on behalf of Vantage House, a Columbia private corporation and retirement community, Steve Wise said the bill would eliminate requirements that do not apply to retirement communities because of their "unique situation."

To apply for a license, applicants must own at least 10 percent stock in the company, serve as manager and oversee alcoholic beverage sales. The bill would waive these requirements for retirement communities, so long as the applicant is identified on the application, receives alcohol awareness training and oversees the retirement communities' overall care.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty expressed her support for a study on the oyster industry that was "exactly the kind of research" needed to provide scientific data on emerging oyster reefs in Maryland's rivers.

Stu Kohn, president of the Howard County Citizens Association, urged the delegation to pass a Howard County version of a Prince George's County bill that would lengthen the legal process required for hospitals to close. Kohn said not requiring hospitals to hold a public hearing prior to closing was a "qualify of life issue."

This story has been updated.

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