Voting based on property ownership won't change in Columbia


Columbia officials concluded last night that it wouldn't be worth the effort or money to try to change the unincorporated community's rules to allow any resident of voting age to vote in community elections.

Managers and elected board members from the eight Columbia villages that base voting rights on property ownership determined that the rules are too hard to change and that too few residents care enough to warrant pursuing a time-consuming and costly reform campaign.

"We're not faced with a groundswell of people beating down our doors for one person, one vote," said Owen Brown village board member Andy Stack at last night's meeting, called by the Columbia Council. "It's not a reasonable way to spend money."

Ninety percent of property owners must approve changes in village association legal documents, which were written by the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.

"I don't think it's feasible," Sarah Uphouse, Long Reach village manager, said. The village couldn't meet covenant requirements to place the voting rights issue on a ballot in the early 1980s, she said.

Villages have trouble attracting even 10 percent of property owners to meet quorums for validating elections for village board and council, officials said.

Village officials opposed pursuing state legislation to get around the 90 percent requirement. Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a Democrat, has suggested that narrow legislation could be crafted to enable villages to put the issue to a popular vote.

River Hill and Kings Contrivance villages changed their voting rules to allow one vote per person early in their development.

Voting rights came to the fore last spring when Councilman Roy T. Lyons challenged an election in which his opponent received 276 votes from two apartment building owners who cast ballots for all their units. The Long Reach village dispute eventually was decided in court in Mr. Lyons' favor.

The judge determined that each property owner, condominium owner and renter is entitled to one vote. The judge said that an apartment complex must be considered as one property and the owner can have only one vote.

Mr. Lyons said in an interview last night that he's learned "most people in Columbia don't believe" that voting is restricted to one per household.

"People said, 'No, we're Americans. Americans have one person, one vote,' " he said.

Village officials said Columbia, a planned community of 80,000, operates as a homeowners' association, not a political entity. Several said covenants were intentionally designed to be difficult to change to ensure continuity and enforceability.

"Over the years, we've seen the covenants upheld," said Bob Berlett, chairman of Oakland Mills village's election monitor committee. "There might be problems with them, but we've seen they're set in more than concrete, they're set in steel."

Mr. Berlett said he foresees changes in the structure of Columbia. Now, the Columbia Association, directed by the council, is the main administrative body, running recreational and community programs.

He said he feels a "responsibility" to broaden voting rights but adds that it probably won't happen unless the strict documents are modified.

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