For Wilde Lake resident Rhoda Toback, the village candidate forum held earlier this week for the Columbia Association elections was unlike any she had seen before.
It wasn't the turnout of 31 residents, which was a pleasant surprise. "We didn't expect a big turnout," said Toback, a Columbia resident of 40 years.
It was the questions.
"We had a very aware and educated audience that asked some very penetrating questions," said Toback, who is running unopposed for a village board seat. "The audience in general is knowledgeable, but because we are dealing with a contested issue that has polarized Columbia, it spilled over into this conversation."
That issue is the Inner Arbor Plan, a CA Board-approved concept for Symphony Woods in downtown Columbia that proposes building an arts village and CA headquarters on the eastern side of the park.
The issue, which has divided residents, has injected a jolt into the normally mundane Columbia Council elections, likely resulting in a higher voter turnout on April 19-20.
Four of the seven council seats up for election are contested, the most since 2009. All four incumbents are seeking reelection.
In the three uncontested races, current board members Tom Coale, of Dorsey's Search, and Gregg Schwind, of Hickory Ridge, will continue serving, while current Kings Contrivance village board member Brian Dunn will succeed current council board chair Shari Zaret for the next two years.
Even though not all four challengers agree on the merits of the Inner Arbor Plan, it was their interest in the future of Symphony Woods that encouraged them to run.
"It all boiled over with this Inner Arbor Trust," said Long Reach candidate Russ Swatek, who is challenging board member Ed Coleman.
"The way they rammed through the Inner Arbor stuff with little chance for input didn't sit well with me," said the 66-year-old, who previously served on the board from 2009 to 2011. "I think it's very important that I and a couple of the other challengers get on or CA is going to continue down that path."
The "challengers" Swatek is referring to are River Hill candidate Clayborne Chavers and Wilde Lake candidate Nancy McCord, who are up against incumbents Michael Cornell and Regina Clay, respectively.
Swatek, and others, have mobilized candidates to challenge all but one of the incumbents, Oakland Mills representative Alex Hekimian, who faces challenger and Inner Arbor proponent Julia McCready.
Hekimian is one of two council members to vote against the Inner Arbor Plan — the other being Cynthia Coyle, of Harper's Choice, who is not up for reelection — and funding for the Inner Arbor Trust, which CA granted a perpetual easement to manage the development.
"The speed at which the CA board made a decision from the time the public got wind of it really concerns people," said Hekimian, regarding the Inner Arbor vote.
One of those concerned is McCord, who currently serves on the Wilde Lake Village Board.
"I don't feel as well versed as I should be," said McCord, a real estate agent at Long and Foster, regarding Symphony Woods. "We didn't hear much about the Inner Arbor until after it was approved. It's been frustrating for someone who cares not to have been informed."
While McCord, Hekimian, Swatek and Chavers have issues with the approval process for the Inner Arbor Plan, incumbents Clay, Cornell, Coleman and newcomer McCready are eager to move the plan forward.
"I think the Inner Arbor Plan was very energizing for a lot of people in Columbia, for those people who don't normally pay attention to what happens at CA," Cornell said. "The amount of email I received and people talking to me, I've never seen that much positive enthusiasm about anything in my six years on the board."
Fellow board member and Wilde Lake incumbent Clay agrees with Cornell, and believes the Inner Arbor Plan is evidence of the board's progress over the last year.
"The CA board has done a lot to take away its 'stigma' of dysfunction. We have delegates, senators and county officials applauding CA for the things we have done as far as taking a leadership role in, for instance, Symphony Woods," Clay said.
"That hasn't always been the case and we want to continue that support," he added.
Long Reach incumbent Ed Coleman, who was recently elected by the 10-member CA board to serve on the board of the Inner Arbor Trust, has expressed skepticism about the plan, but wants to keep the momentum going.
"This is step one of a one thousand step process," Coleman said regarding setting up the Inner Arbor Trust, which is in the process of applying for 501(c)(3) status with the Internal Revenue Service.
"I don't want to leap without looking but I want to move forward. We have the momentum. Now is not the time to stop."
While the Inner Arbor Plan is at the forefront, some see it as a sign of an overarching issue.
"Symphony Woods is a symptom of a larger issue of openness and transparency," said Hekimian.
River Hill challenger Chavers said he believes the approval of the Inner Arbor Plan has brought to light a pattern of CA board practices he would like to see changed.
"It's caused people to take note of the conduct of the affairs of the Columbia Association," said Chavers, a Washington-based attorney specializing in civil rights and diversity.
"I'm concerned the board is not being more responsible to the needs of the citizenry. Homeowners have to be viewed as the constituency the CA board is responsible to."
Chavers said he personally favors the previous "park" plan for Symphony Woods over the Inner Arbor, but that his vote on any issue would be based on resident input, not his personal feeling.
"My personal preference has no greater significance then the homeowners I represent," Chavers said.
And although McCready differs from Hekimian and Chavers on her personal view of the future of Symphony Woods, she agrees it has become a symbol for a larger issue.
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"It's a symptom of a larger question of 'Who will speak for Columbia?' We are not the only generation going to live here," said the 53-year-old McCready.
McCready, who teaches music and movement to students with special needs in the Howard County Public School System, said that one of her goals, if elected, would be to find ways for younger people to get involved in CA.
"I'm a teacher. My goal is to share with the greater public," she said. "We have a constituency of older residents who are concerned, which is great, but we need to find younger voices."
Both McCready and McCord, the two challengers currently serving on village boards, said one issue they would like addressed is the overall lack of communication between the CA board and the boards of each village.
"I think communication between the CA board and the villages is hugely critical," McCord said.
McCord also hopes to improve communication between the residents and the CA board.
"We need to work together rather than be so divisive," she said. "I can understand the residents' problems, after all. I am a resident."