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In last-minute flourish, Howard County Council delays vote on downtown Columbia overhaul

The Howard County Council Monday delayed its vote on the plan for downtown Columbia.
The Howard County Council Monday delayed its vote on the plan for downtown Columbia. (File photo)

After a flurry of last-minute amendments that capped four months of deliberation, the Howard County Council Monday night delayed its vote on a historic deal that will guide the development of downtown Columbia over the next 40 years.

The council moved its vote on the package, which includes competing plans to incorporate affordable housing and a $90 million public financing deal, to Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.

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The public financing deal, called Tax Increment Financing, earmarks future tax revenues from the downtown development to pay back county bonds and other costs associated with the new development.

Administrative staff distributed last-minute amendments literally hot off the council's printer Monday night. Proposed changes included pushing the release of TIF bonds by up to five years.

In testimony submitted to the council late Monday, Howard Hughes Corp. objected to several amendments proposed by council members.

The developer will transfer its ownership of Merriweather Post Pavilion, the popular outdoor amphitheater, to a local nonprofit if the TIF and affordable housing bills pass without any "material changes," according to a summary of an escrowed agreement.

That could put the council in a sticky situation.

The Dallas-based developer has identified several changes it considered "material," a term that broadly refers to major changes as defined by the company, said Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development at Howard Hughes.

Council members Calvin Ball, Mary Kay Sigaty and Jon Weinstein said the delay was critical to allow the public to review amendments as negotiations with Howard Hughes Corp. continue.

"There have been other concessions we have been working on with Howard Hughes," said Ball. "This'll give us some time to publicize that."

Sigaty said she was not prepared to vote on the legislative overhaul Monday night, even though she said the proposed amendments reflect "very small changes."

"Truth be known, I haven't really had a chance to take a look at the amendments to the amendments," Sigaty said.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a strong opponent of the TIF and the administration's plan for affordable housing, has proposed more than half of the amendments now before the council. She is convinced the administration's plan is a gift to the developer.

"Sometimes when you overly complicate a deal, it really is just a smoke and mirrors," Terrasa said.

If the council does not vote on the legislation this month, bills related to downtown Columbia will need to be re-introduced, triggering a cycle of public hearings and work session.

The first affordable housing plan uses a 40-year binding agreement between Howard Hughes, downtown Columbia's master developer, and the county to build up to 900 affordable units in downtown Columbia.

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The developer would be responsible for building 400 units and the remaining balance would be achieved through low income housing tax credit projects and other means.

The administration has hailed the plan as a consensus-driven and guaranteed way to build affordable housing in downtown. The developer would primarily be responsible for building 400 affordable units.

A competing plan proposed by Terrasa requires roughly 15 percent of all units to be affordable. Terrasa's plan is highly unlikely to pass because of lack of support from the other council members, she said.

The TIF would fund a $51 million parking garage, shared by commercial tenants and Merriweather Post Pavilion, and other public improvements.



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