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This week in Columbia's history: Columbia residents move to create special tax district

In April 1977, the Columbia Council held its first public hearing on a committee report that recommended abandoning the developer-controlled Columbia Association, replacing it with a special tax district. Two days later, Columbians elected a council with a majority of members in favor of some form of self-government.

Roy Appletree, chairman of the Alternate Financing Committee that issued the report and one of the council members elected that year, said that Columbia's political shift had two root causes.

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First, 10 years after Columbia's founding, he said, CA was facing serious financial troubles, and was unable to provide amenities — buried power lines in Owen Brown, a new swimming pool — that residents had been promised.

"And then there's just the basic democratic concept that 'Hey, it's been 10 years now. We should have more control of what's going on,'" Appletree said.

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Columbia pioneer Fred Weaver was appointed to the Howard County personnel board in March 1969. Weaver said he used the position to advance affirmative action policies and break up what he called "the good old boy network."

The CA was founded with board representatives from the community and from Howard Research and Development, the developer building Columbia. The Washington Post wrote in 1979 that this structure was meant to give citizens democratic control, while also allowing the developer to control its investment.

That investment was considerable. The Columbia Association operates to this day on a lien, a fee based on property values, according to its website. But the group had to build community facilities, like pools and parks, long before Columbia had attracted enough residents to pay for those facilities. The Baltimore Sun noted on Columbia's 10th birthday in 1977 that the Columbia Association was $35 million in debt.

Activists who argued for a special tax district, or for turning Columbia into an incorporated municipality, did so partially to help with financing; those moves would have made Columbia eligible for lower interest rates on bonds.

But for many residents, the more pressing issue was one of citizen control. Howard Research and Development shared control of the Columbia Association with elected representatives. The developer had planned to cede full control to residents by 1977, but after the recession in the early 1970s the CA had to borrow even more from HRD; the developer demanded that it maintain control until the loans were paid off.

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Although the Columbia Council was nearly unanimous in its support of a special tax district, technical and legal concerns, as well as a fear of breaking away from Howard County services, kept the self-government measures from passing. Howard Research and Development maintained seats on the CA board until 1982.

Reflecting on Columbia today, Appletree said, the proposal's failure may have been for the best, especially because the CA is now financially sound.

"They were more comfortable with the devil they knew," said Appletree. "And it turns out they were probably correct."

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