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Bridge Columbia, funding top discussion at Kittleman's first town hall

Though it was held at The Other Barn in Columbia's Oakland Mills, issues broached at Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman's town hall Tuesday night ranged from the hyperlocal to the county-wide.

The forum, the first since Kittleman was elected, was an opportunity for residents to ask questions and share concerns with the county executive face-to-face. Some 200 people showed up to the event.

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The evening began, and ended, with a pitch for Bridge Columbia, a proposed project to connect the village of Oakland Mills to downtown Columbia by a pedestrian bridge over Route 29. Advocates would also like to see a transit option, such as light rail, over the bridge.

Many hope the project can help rejuvenate the aging village center, which was one of the first to be built after Columbia was founded nearly 50 years ago.

"I think what we're all most concerned about here is keeping the viability of our village center going," said Dan Kirk-Davidoff, a Stevens Forest resident who is running for a spot on the Oakland Mills Village Board. "The way to maintain that is to increase the density and foot traffic around the village center."

"I think the public transit piece of the bridge is really important," said Marcia White, another village board candidate. "Increasing public transit in Columbia is vital."

Kittleman said he supports building the bridge.

"The biggest point I think we need to make is, in order for the village here to be revitalized, we have to have access," he said. "Nobody comes to Oakland Mills Village Center unless they're going to Oakland Mills Village Center. You don't just drive by it."

The county executive added his hope is that new development in downtown Columbia will attract new residents who don't necessarily want to pay a premium to live in the apartments in the city center.

Those people, he said, would likely look to nearby villages, such as Oakland Mills, first – as long as they're conveniently accessible to downtown. He added the biggest challenge the county faces in building the bridge is figuring out how to fund what promises to be a multimillion dollar project.

Funding difficulties were a common theme. Kittleman said he'd like to support an initiative to help homeowners spruce up aging properties, expand ice rink space for the county's hockey players and a host of other proposals, but with a projected revenue increase of only $15.2 million this fiscal year, he shied away from making promises.

"There's not a whole lot [of money] to go around," he told the crowd.

Another Oakland Mills-centric issue that came up at the forum was the Verona apartment complex, which the county's Housing Commission bought last year with the intent of redeveloping down the road. While many questions skirted the topic of affordable housing concentration, the conversation did not become as spirited as in previous meetings.

Kittleman said he's hopeful the new Verona apartments will be similar to other county moderate income housing complexes, such as Ellicott City's Burgess Mill and Columbia's Monarch Mills.

Countywide issues raised at the forum included transportation – both public transit and bicycle; calls for support for the county's homeless population; and concerns about traffic and crowded schools as Columbia, and the county, continues to grow.

Kittleman said he had met recently with Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett to discuss coordinating bus rapid transit along Route 29, and he also said he saw the value of "complete streets," which cater not only to cars, but to bikes and pedestrians, too.

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He promised to look at what more could be done for the county's homeless, but pointed to progress on plans for efficiency apartments and a new Day Resource Center on Route 1 in Jessup as a "first step."

On development concerns, he said he plans to convene a commission to examine the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, a set of guidelines intended to ensure that infrastructure keeps pace with new development, in mid-April.

He also weighed in on a bill before the County Council that would ban weapons in county buildings, with exceptions for law enforcement officers.

Kittleman said he wants to see an exception for concealed-carry permit holders added to the bill.

"It's not easy to get one of those," he said. "I'm waiting to see what the council does."

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