Unified voice of activism resonates for a Greater Towson

The Greater Towson Council of Community Associations is a part of Towson's "shadow government," according to Mike Ertel, a former president of the organization.

He notes that Towson may be the Baltimore County seat. But it is not an incorporated municipality.

"We don't have a mayor and we're not going to have a mayor," Ertel said. "Groups determine what goes on in Towson."

Ertel calls those groups the "Towson T's," the nonprofits that work with — or sometimes butt heads with — one another and government representatives to make Towson better.

For instance, the Towson Chamber of Commerce promotes and shepherds the business community.

The Greater Towson Committee advocates for commercial development.

And the all-volunteer Greater Towson Council of Community Associations supports community associations that represent residential neighborhoods.

Over the course of the GTCCA's 36-year existence, that support has translated into discussion, advice, a position letter — or in one case a $325 check to partially reimburse the Towson Park Community Association for legal fees related to a zoning case with far-reaching repercussions.

GTCCA was "a great help to us when we were fighting (that) zoning change," said association president Nancy Pivec. "Towson Park really appreciated both their guidance and the assistance with the legal fees. It is a great organization."

Spanning nearly four decades, the group has had an impact on county legislation related to home office use, cell towers, rooming and boarding houses, redevelopment of shopping centers, installation of traffic calming devices, design of new development and the effort to make downtown Towson more pedestrian-friendly.

Trish Mayhugh, president of the Riderwood Hills Community Association, calls the GTCCA, "a great group of movers and shakers who have their fingers on the pulse of what's going on in Towson."

Grate expectations

Dick Parsons, a past president and a founding member of the GTCCA, says it was founded in 1975 as the brainchild of former Burkleigh Square resident Randy Richardson.

"He believed the neighborhoods were being played for suckers by developers and their lawyers," he said.

Initially, Richardson pulled together representatives of eight associations. They met in each other's houses.

The first big accomplishment was getting grates put in over storm drains on Towsontown Boulevard to prevent them from catching bicycle wheels.

"We didn't quite know what we were doing," Parsons said. "We didn't know how to flex our muscles, and we weren't taken seriously."

Today, the GTCCA has "a lot of clout," said past President Ed Kilcullen of Towson Manor Village.

"We are seen as an organization with a large membership," he said. "Developers will contact us to pitch an idea and put out feelers to see how the community is going to react."

Some say GTCCA's influence is best shown in things that didn't happen in Towson. For instance, there's no 75-foot-high cell tower in Southland Hills.

There's no McDonald's adjacent to Tabco Towers and The Ridgely high-rise apartments.

Residents of Schwartz Avenue don't have glare from ball field lights across the street, because the fields aren't lighted.

There's no subsidized housing where Towson University's Marriott Conference Center now stands.

And if and when the Towson Circle III project comes to pass, it won't include an apartment-dorm building housing 600 Towson University students.

On those types of issues and more, elected officials have learned to pay attention to what the GTCCA thinks, said 42nd District Del. Bill Frank.

"The organization has built up a creditable track record over the years of acting in the best interest of the community," he said.

Presidents and delegates

There was a time when GTCCA president David Kosak thought he was losing weight.

Indeed, he's had to skip lunch hours to handle demands of a group representing some 10,000 Towson households.

The Fellowship Forest resident was elected Dec. 15 to a second term to head the GTCCA. He ran unopposed.

Redistricting has been a big issue over the past year, he said, but on any given day the hot topic might be school overcrowding, zoning, code enforcement, legislation and public policy, lighting, speeding … or the impact of college students who live in Towson neighborhoods.

The latter of those is ironic, given that Kosak graduated from Towson University — just in 2009.

He is, in fact, the youngest president GTCCA has ever had. Kosak was 23 when he was first elected. He made an unsuccessful run for the House of Delegates, and GTCCA members say they were impressed by his work ethic and his dedication to resolving issues.

Since he ran his first GTCCA meeting in January 2010, he has learned to appreciate the time and effort GTCCA volunteers put in, especially when they are up against people who are being paid good money to be at the table — development attorneys, traffic engineers and the like.

Kosak said he has learned small issues can be significant to neighbors; and bigger issues can turn out to be "not a big deal."

And he has learned how to "set expectations in the attainable range."

GTCCA meetings are the third Thursday of the month at 7:30 p.m. at Pickersgill Retirement Community. That's where delegates from each community association meet, as well as guests.

The delegate system is effective, said 5th District County Council member David Marks.

"What's unique about Towson is it's very neighborhood oriented," said Marks.

GTCCA is effective, Marks said, because instead of trying to span an entire area, it works through delegates to address not only broad issues, but issues unique to specific neighborhoods.

In addition to delegates, representatives of Towson University and Goucher College regularly attend meetings, as do representatives of Greater Baltimore and St. Joseph medical centers, the Towson Chamber of Commerce, county police, planning and zoning officials and Towson Area Citizens on Patrol.

Elected officials are frequent guests, and most sessions feature a presentation with a proposal or key issue, and opportunity for outsiders to raise issues and provide or receive information.

But at each meeting, at about 9 p.m, guests are excused — strategizing and treasury reports are done in a closed-door session reserved for delegates.

Rodgers Forge resident and former president Don Gerding defends that practice.

Previously "sometimes discussion was misinterpreted and information got out to the public that wasn't true," he said. "And honestly people feel freer to talk. But we're still examining if this is the most effective way of doing things."

"The membership meeting is not a public or town hall meeting," Kilcullen said. "We need to be able to discuss things openly and not show our hand."

"Strategy as it relates to litigation, personnel decisions, and financial matters (are) nobody's business but the delegates," agreed Parsons. "You don't want it known how to bleed us."

Young blood

The GTCCA nearly tanked more than 20 years ago after interest waned and one president didn't hold a meeting for a year and a half.

When Steve Lafferty, who then lived in Idlewylde, became president in 1990, he revived it by pitching to the disparate associations that they would be able to get things done if they united.

Lafferty, who is now a delegate for the 42nd District, said that when he left, "people from different parts of Towson were talking to each other, and learning they can't push a problem out of one neighborhood into another. We all had to pull together."

But until Ertel became president in 2005, that didn't include the other "T" groups. Tension had developed between GTCCA and the business community and developers in general.

It began to dispel in 2006 during meetings of the Urban Design Assistance Team, which had representatives of every faction in town sitting down together to help determine a future for Towson.

Nancy Hafford, a board member for the then-Towson Business Association (now the Towson Chamber of Commerce), believed it was important for the business and residential groups to support each other.

"The business community is like the front door of the residential community," she said. "You need a nice front door if you want to keep your property values up."

Ertel echoed that sentiment, and the GTCCA evolved a more collaborative stance. The group set up a University Committee to establish better relations with Towson University. Kilcullen, who succeeded Ertel, took the ball and ran with it, forging even closer ties.

Now Kosak is in charge, and has called for more GTCCA involvement in the revitalization of downtown Towson, and support for restaurants and businesses that residents want to see. He envisions more partnerships with Goucher College and Towson University, and with hospitals and other institutions.

He was set up a system of committees to divide the work, and has instituted a GTCCA email blast to keep residents informed. The website, http://www.gtcca.org, includes links to county and community resources, and a way to contact the council.

Kosak said information flow, and use of technology, are key to get others involved, particularly younger people.

Ertel said involvement in the GTCCA is worth the effort to keep Towson a unique place to live and work.

"If we want Towson to stay special," he said, "we need new people who have decided to make it their home."

GTCCA open meetings are held from 7:30 to 9 p.m the third Thursday of the month at the Pickersgill Retirement Community, 615 Chestnut Ave. For more details on the GTCCA, go to http://www.gtcca.org.

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