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Letters: Readers sound off on the upcoming Columbia Association elections, Rouse Project | READER COMMENTARY

Challenging Rouse Project positions on CA

The April 13 commentary by the Rouse Project should have been titled: “Rouse Project spreads falsities to appeal to suburban families’ anxieties while appropriating local hero’s name for commercial gain.”

The Rouse Project is a for-profit organization running a campaign to increase diversity on the Columbia Association board of directors. We can all get behind that platform, right? But their actions raise questions about their integrity, their funding sources and their true motive behind stacking candidates on a local HOA board of directors.

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As the CA elections unfold, the Rouse Project has ramped up their CA smear campaign, spreading false accusations about how the CA board operates and pointing to the lack of racial diversity on the board to motive Columbia voters to get to the polls and vote for Rouse Project endorsed candidates. Behind this veil of “diversity,” the Rouse Project has perpetuated false information about the future of CA facilities, the budget process and their involvement in the hotly debated Symphony of Lights location. Here I challenge the Rouse Project’s position on these important issues.

1. The CA operates 23 pools. No, they didn’t open last year, a decision which needed to be made in late March/early April, when the coronavirus was red-hot and rising. Unlike other community pools with one facility that could turn around staffing and training quickly, this wasn’t possible with 23 independent facilities, mostly staffed by teenagers and trained entirely by CA aquatics. A tough decision, yes. In fact, even with 15 pools opening this summer, the CA is struggling to find enough lifeguards to work this summer. Parents are keeping their kids home and teachers (who often fill summer jobs) need a break. The CA has no plans to shutter any of the 23 pools in Columbia at this time and is working tirelessly to maintain each and every neighborhood pool for future use.

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2. The CA is so much more than tot lots and swimming pools. The Rouse Project’s use of these facilities to stoke fear among the community that they might be closed is solely to vilify the CA and control and promote a negative narrative about the organization. The CA has protected the community centers, pools and tot lots for years. It’s normal for a large organization to discuss these amenities through a budgetary lens, but the board has always made the important decision to keep these facilities open and maintained (COVID-19 aside). The CA also provides before and after care programs, maintains pathways, runs summer camps, senior centers and fitness facilities, protects our open spaces and so much more. These assets are distributed among 10 villages and throughout low-, moderate- and high-income housing. Lower-income residents receive huge discounts to participate in programming and to ensure that no one is left out from access.

3. The conflict over the location of Symphony of Lights has been going on for years. The lawsuit brought by the CA was not frivolous but rather the result of years of attempted negations with the organizers of Symphony of Lights (a for-profit organization) who have continuously refused to negotiate with the CA over easement and property access. Symphony of Lights is promoted by the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, which allows Symphony of Lights use of the Merriweather Post Pavilion property for this event. The president of the downtown commission once worked for Ken Ulman, a founding member of the Rouse Project and former county executive. Symphony of Lights has outgrown its space and needs to move. More importantly, the event needs an actual roadway for people to drive along instead of through our precious concert pavilion and surrounding parkland.

The CA board position is tough. It’s extremely time-consuming and can be very difficult and thankless. To suggest that diversity on the board is the most important aspect missing from the CA is to ignore that Columbia likely has the most equitable distribution of community assets among any town in the country. Should our board better reflect the diversity of Columbia? Yes. Have our older and whiter CA board members done a disservice to its diverse community members? No.

So what are the true motivations of the Rouse Project? Why won’t they release their funding sources? What do they hope to gain in Columbia by stacking the CA board? I hope these questions will be answered before our village elections on April 24. Voters deserve the truth.

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Bess Caplan

Columbia

The writer is a member of the Wilde Lake Community Association board of directors who is not seeking reelection this year.

Members of CA board need experience

Concerning last week’s commentary, one thing that I do like about the Rouse Project’s initiative is its canvassing in the press and in the mail urging Columbia lien holders to get out and vote in the upcoming Columbia Association board elections. However, their statement that historically turnout has been abysmal due to apathy over the CA being unresponsive to the community’s concerns, I suggest the contrary: that the lack of turnout is because residents are more than satisfied with the services the CA provides. After all, Columbia has already been voted, in at least one national magazine, as the best small city in which to live!

The Rouse Project is promoting a list of new candidates to replace every existing CA board member. The obvious question is where were these candidates when they had ample opportunity to run in previous elections? The list of “hopes” that the candidates espouse to are not new to residents and consequently are hardly controversial. What is missing is the “hope” for the CA to take the leading role in guiding development in downtown and any redevelopment in the villages, industrial parks and business centers by engaging with Howard Hughes Corp. and the county administration. Most of all, the CA needs experts in these matters on their board and the addition of a site planning professional to the CA staff.

None of the Rouse Project’s candidates have the experience to address pressing development issues or the future of zoning subject to change in this year’s Howard County general plan revision.

Jervis Dorton

Columbia

Rouse Project has no connection to Columbia founder

Last week, the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier published a letter from a group that calls themselves “The Rouse Project.” This group has no connection with Columbia’s founder, Jim Rouse, nor does it have any authorization to use his name or image. The “Rouse Project is no “chorus of voices” that “have come together under the common refrain of renewing Columbia’s promise.”

It is, in fact, a stealth special interest group with an unstated agenda that is determined to take over the Columbia Association’s board of directors. The group refuses to tell us who initiated the organization, who is funding it or who is actually pulling the strings. The “Rouse Project” has so far invested tens of thousands of dollars of unknown origin behind the candidacy of six individuals who for the most part have had very limited past community service or involvement.

The “Rouse Project” was founded in January as an LLC by person or persons unknown. As an LLC, ownership can be and was concealed. It also filed as a for-profit, enabling it to avoid filing a declaration with the Maryland Secretary of State that might reveal its purpose, finances and leadership. The group has published a “Steering Committee” list, but none of the individuals on that list are willing to tell where the money is coming from or who is in charge.

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As a result, there has be much conjecture as to what the “Rouse Project” is all about, which the group dismisses as “rumors and conspiracy theories.” There would be no “rumors or conspiracy theories” if the group would shed a little sunlight on their inner workings.

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There is mounting evidence the “Rouse Project” may be a front for certain prominent business and real estate development interests, including one that recently bragged to investors that its business model involved exercising monopoly powers to dominate the communities in which it operated.

One thing we do know is that the “Rouse Project” has been serving up a porridge of misinformation regarding the CA’s policies, plans, finances and activities. And we do know that special interests do not make major investments in elections without expecting a major return on that expense.

Dick Boulton

Ellicott City

The writer is a candidate for reelection to the Columbia Association board of directors who represents the village of Dorsey’s Search.

Developers are trying to buy CA election

There is a pivotal election going on in Columbia right now. On one side is the current leadership of theColumbia Association, the city’s homeowners association and de facto government. Opposing them is The Rouse Project, a recently formed hidden-money political committee. But which side supports the best interests of Columbia’s residents remains an open question.

It has been nearly four months since The Rouse Project was launched, and to this day it has not disclosed who bankrolls the initiative. Taking advantage of the lack of election laws in HOA elections, the group declines to reveal who provides the substantial funding for its glossy pamphlets and mailers, yard signs, slick website and mass emails, marketing art and attorneys. However, the group’s logo includes the famous People Tree, which is trademarked by Howard Hughes Corp. and the Rouse Project’s steering committee includes multiple people affiliated with Howard Hughes or its spin offs, so the answer could lie there.

Howard Hughes is a massive real estate management company based in Texas, founded as an oil-drilling business by the reclusive billionaire of the same name. They own or manage much of the property in downtown Columbia, and they have many millions of dollars in business dealings controlled by Columbia Association. If Howard Hughes were to gain more influence over CA decisions, they would stand to profit greatly.

Last week, four members of Rouse Project’s steering committee published a letter criticizing “the CA’s entrenched power structure,” saying it “has drifted further from our community’s founding ideals.” But coming from Ken Ulman and other longtime members of Howard County’s political establishment, that’s a very “pot meets kettle” statement.

Ulman was Howard County executive for eight years before his run for lieutenant governor, and his tenure was marked by a variety of zoning law changes and approvals in favor of real estate developers including Howard Hughes. Along with Ulman, Rouse Project’s steering committee includes former members of the County Council, Columbia Association and other governing bodies, as well as local consultants and many business interests.

In 2020, the Columbia Association had a messy legal battle with the people running the Merriweather Post Pavilion amphitheater, including Brad Canfield (former Howard Hughes employee and current Rouse Project member) and Louis Ulman (Ken Ulman’s father), over control of the adjacent Symphony Woods. This dispute may have been the impetus for Rouse Project’s attempt to oust the CA’s leadership.

The Rouse Project wants to elect its preferred CA board members to pick a new CA president and CEO. With a united front controlling the entire organization, they would then have free rein to do business in whatever way they see fit. Their behind-the-scenes sponsors are undoubtedly hoping for this exact outcome.

The Rouse Project’s defenders have tried to paint any and all critics speculating about developer ties to the organization as fringe conspiracy theorists, or environmental zealots who oppose any sale of green space managed by the CA to private companies.

However, we are not the only ones who are skeptical about the Rouse Project and its true motives. In fact, Howard residents from across the political spectrum, including several Columbia-based bloggers, Board of Education member Dr. Chao Wu and former County Executive Liz Bobo, have publicly called on the Rouse Project to be more transparent about their goals and from where they get their funding. The Rouse Project’s response to these reasonable requests has been extremely telling; Rather than answer these questions honestly and transparently, the Rouse Project and their supporters have been fiercely defensive about any sort of criticism levied their way and even sent out a surprisingly harsh mass email attacking their most vocal critics, including Liz Bobo.

All Columbia residents need to be aware that this conflict, which the Rouse Project describes as a progressive movement for diversity and inclusion, is really about big business using marketing power to increase profits at taxpayer expense.

Francis Uy

Columbia

Carla Tevelow

Columbia

Richard Kohn

Columbia

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