A group of Columbia activists wants to do away with a cornerstone of pioneer developer James W. Rouse's design for a better community and turn America's second-largest planned community into Maryland's second-largest city.
Members of a new coalition, most of whom settled in the unincorporated Howard County community soon after its 1967 founding, have launched a petition drive to place before Columbia voters a referendum on whether to incorporate.
Columbia does not have a city government. Instead, the community of 80,000 residents is run by the Columbia Association (CA), a nonprofit private corporation that serves as a huge, multiservice homeowners' association.
The incorporation movement pits residents seeking more responsive, open governance against those who say CA is uniquely structured to efficiently manage and improve Columbia.
"The original Jim Rouse dream is really at stake" in this issue, said Rabbi Martin Siegel, 61, head of the Columbia Jewish Congregation and spokesman for the group leading the petition drive, the Coalition of Governance Concerned Columbia Residents.
Mr. Siegel said the coalition wants to invigorate a largely affluent community that has grown complacent, adding: "I would hope Jim Rouse would support it because we are keepers of the dream."
But Mr. Rouse, who intended Columbia to be more livable than many sprawling suburban communities, hasn't jumped on the coalition's bandwagon. "I'm inclined to think it's not the best thing for Columbia," he said, "but I'm not ready to take a position."
A quarter century ago, Columbia was just 14,000 acres of sparsely populated farmland. If it becomes a city, it would displace Rockville as Maryland's second-largest city behind Baltimore, and its residents might have more control over local services. But Howard County likely would lose some state revenue, and Columbia residents might have to pay more for their community's services.
Only four Maryland communities -- all Montgomery County municipalities with populations of less than 1,000 -- have incorporated as municipalities since a 1954 state law gave local jurisdictions more authority to do so. Among America's planned communities, only the city of Irvine, Calif., is larger than Columbia.
The Columbia coalition, which so far has collected about 1,300 signatures on its petition, faces daunting political obstacles.
Significantly, the coalition is directly challenging CA, a powerful institution formed by the Rouse Co. at Columbia's outset to provide services to the planned community.
CA, with a $32 million annual budget and 180 full-time and 700 to 1,100 part-time employees, has a long history of subtly deflecting opposition.
CA is "very formidable," said Ernest Erber, a retired urban planner and sociology professor, who has lived in Columbia for 22 years. "They're part of a network of institutions that maintains things as they are in Howard County. They have no reason to change.
"Anyone who speaks about the incorporation of Columbia as a municipality will immediately stir up a hornet's nest of opposition from CA," he said.
CA imposes an annual levy on Columbia property owners to pay for the community's array of recreational facilities, parklands and services. The annual levy of 73 cents per $100 of assessed
property value comes to $547 for a $150,000 home; it is not tax-deductible.
The association is led by a 10-member council of representatives elected in each Columbia village. Council Vice Chairman David W. Berson -- who is heading a council study of Columbia's governance -- said he's concerned residents would vote to incorporate simply to allow the deduction of their CA levy from their federal taxes.
CA's longtime hired president, Padraic Kennedy, declined to comment on the incorporation drive.
The coalition says Columbia needs a stronger sense of identity and more control over its destiny than afforded by CA.
"These are fast-moving times," said coalition Chairman James V. Clark, 70, a business consultant and 23-year Columbia resident. "We want to be in step with the future and go into the 21st century well-positioned to chart our course as a front-runner among planned communities."
But many community leaders are wary of incorporation, saying it might increase bureaucracy and costs.
"If there are people in Columbia who feel the current system of bureaucracy doesn't work well, government would only make it worse," said William Thies Jr., chairman of the village board in Dorsey's Search, one of Columbia's 10 villages.
Critics also say a referendum is imprudent because it wouldn't provide residents with detailed information, such as the costs and benefits of incorporating.
But R. William Sowders, Kings Contrivance village board chairman, supports a referendum, saying a ballot measure might produce useful debate. "We won't have a large-scale debate unless it gets on the ballot," he said.
So far, the politics of the incorporation effort parallels in some ways the current race for county executive between incumbent Republican Charles I. Ecker and Susan Gray, who won a surprise victory last month in the Democratic primary. Both the coalition and Ms. Gray, a crusader for slowing growth and a frequent critic of county government, are perceived in Howard County as anti-establishment.
"There's a generalized dissatisfaction with entrenched authority," Mr. Siegel, the coalition spokesman, said. "I'm not anti-CA, but I want to make government more responsive to the people rather than to itself."
Several residents who signed the petition agreed.
Incorporation could provide residents "a sense of more influence what occurs," said Susan McDonald, 29, a supervisor for a mortgage company. "Columbia is a great place. I think it could be a good city."
Tina Beerman, a 43-year-old nurse, added that she doesn't see a financial return on her CA levy, noting that Columbia's recreational facilities require extra fees. "If I'm going to pay a tax," she said, "I'd rather pay to a local government where I have a say."