Howard Hughes, County Council moving on after disagreement

As a vote approaches on legislation forming the Downtown Columbia Partnership, Howard Hughes senior vice president John DeWolf said this week that conversations between his company and the County Council "are moving in a very good direction."

That wasn't the case June 21, when DeWolf and members of the council had a heated debate over the proposed structure of the partnership's board of directors.

The legislation forming the partnership, which would conduct marketing, maintenance, security, transportation and other services in downtown Columbia, was introduced by County Executive Ken Ulman's administration on June 4. The council held a hearing on it July 18, at which community members presented concerns about the structure of the partnership's board and the administration of affordable housing funds.

A vote is scheduled for July 2 at 7:30 p.m. in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

The legislation sets up a seven-member Board of Directors, which is responsible for managing the partnership and overseeing its budget. Four of the board members would be representatives from the major stakeholders — Ulman, DeWolf, Mall in Columbia General Manager Katie Essing and Columbia Association President Phil Nelson.

The other three members will be representatives from Howard Hughes, until 500,000 square feet of commercial space is developed in downtown, at which time the county executive would appoint two members who either own commercial property or a business in downtown, or live in close proximity to downtown. The third member must be a commercial property owner in downtown.

Some members of the council raised concerns about four of the initial seven board members being representatives of Howard Hughes as four members make a quorum. They also said they felt that the board did not include enough downtown Columbia stakeholders.

Mark Thompson, the county's director of downtown redevelopment, explained that Howard Hughes was given the controlling interest of the board until 500,000 square feet because they are responsible for all the partnership's expenses until that point.

DeWolf said he believes that Howard Hughes having initial control of the board is necessary for it to control the start-up expenses.

"We can't give you our checkbook and have you write checks," he said.

However, Council member Jen Terrasa, a Columbia Democrat, said she had concerns that Howard Hughes, if given control of the board, would not provide sufficient funding.

The differences in opinion seem to stem, primarily, from different interpretations of the intent behind the Downtown Columbia Plan the council passed in February 2010 to serve as the guide for the 30-year redevelopment.

The plan, which requires the partnership be set up before approval of the first Final Development Plan, reads: "GGP (Howard Hughes) and Howard County will jointly determine the functions, organizational structure, implementation ... potential funding sources and projected funding needs of the Downtown Columbia Partnership."

Most council members seemed to believe the partnership would be established by legislation.

DeWolf, meanwhile, said Howard Hughes had always interpreted the plan to mean that the company would work with the county to form a nonprofit and that legislation was not needed.

"We shouldn't be here," he said during one of the many heated moments of the work session. "You've legislated this already. This should be a planning department and Howard Hughes conversation."

Thompson agreed with that interpretation. However, he explained, county attorneys said a nonprofit would not legally be able to enforce collection of the fees the plan calls for and suggested a commercial district management authority be formed instead, thus requiring legislation.

DeWolf said Howard Hughes agreed to the legislation the county drafted before going into the Planning Board hearing in which its first Final Development Plan was approved.

"We would not have proceeded with that hearing had we known this (legislation) was subject to further negotiation," DeWolf said.

The Planning Board approved the FDP in April based on the fact that Howard Hughes had agreed to the legislation that the county had drafted and was planning to submit to the council.

DeWolf said he thought council approval of the legislation was a formality. However, Thompson said the administration "never in any way insinuated that this is an absolutely final negotiated result."

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