A leader of the group pushing to incorporate Columbia said yesterday that the Columbia Association's plan to buy Rouse Co. land for a recreational vehicle storage yard looks like "an insider deal."
"It has appearances of a concern -- the coziness between the bTC Rouse Co. and CA and the disregard of the interests of the citizens, the fact that the citizens never had a seat at the table," said Rabbi Martin Siegel, vice president of Columbia Municipal League Inc.
He said the deal is a prime example of why he and others have launched a drive to turn Columbia -- which is run as a huge homeowners' association -- into an incorporated city with an open government.
But David W. Berson, the Columbia Council's vice chairman, said the association's "package deal" with the Rouse Co. to build the parking facility off Snowden River Parkway in east Columbia makes sense financially.
"It's a good deal for the Rouse Co. as well as a good deal for us," said Mr. Berson, who said that residents will have a chance to comment in the next month.
And the Rouse vice president brokering the deal said the proposed transaction illustrates the developer's "positive" relationship with the nonprofit association.
"Our perspective is that we're here for the long term, and long-term relationships are important to us," said Gerald E. Brock, Rouse's senior development director.
The debate, which will be aired at tonight's council meeting, centers on a piece of land near Owen Brown village that once was part of the 1,100-acre General Electric industrial park and currently is exempt from CA's annual property levy.
The association has proposed paying $1 million to the Rouse Co. for just under 5 acres of that land, and $400,000 to build a parking area for recreational vehicles. The association needs only about half that land for the recreational vehicle parking lot, officials say.
The deal is attractive to the Rouse Co. because it involves land the company had not been aggressively marketing and had not expected to sell in the near future.
In exchange, the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, would subject Snowden Square retail center and adjacent undeveloped residential land to the Columbia Association's annual property levy. That 110-acre area, also on the former industrial park property, now is exempt from the charge.
Subjecting those properties to the levy is expected to generate between $300,000 and $400,000 in assessment revenue annually for CA once they are fully developed.
Mr. Siegel said he is concerned that the parking lot project -- which would account for about one-quarter of CA's proposed $6 million 1995-1996 capital budget -- is a creation of village covenant advisers paid by CA to enforce architectural guidelines.
Those guidelines prohibit Columbia residents from parking campers, trailers, boats and recreational vehicles on their property.
"The people haven't been consulted," said Mr. Siegel, who disputes the demand for a recreational vehicle parking lot. "You have an internally validated system which creates a need for this parking lot."
Mr. Siegel also said he is concerned that the 5-acre property hasn't been appraised. And he criticized Rouse for not having already placed the 1,100-acre former industrial park under CA's annual levy. The levy shouldn't be contingent upon a package deal, he said.
"They are the major landlord in this town," Mr. Siegel said. "They exercise enormous economic power because of that, and they have a multimillion dollar benefit from CA facilities. That they are at best ambiguous about putting their own properties under the lien is outrageous."
Columbia and Rouse officials argue that the deal is a fair one and that all parties are proceeding carefully.
But the Columbia Council has discussed the deal with CA staff only in closed sessions. The Rouse Co. has dealt exclusively with CA managers and hasn't talked directly with the council, Mr. Berson said.
Some council members also have urged caution on the project, among them Councilman Chuck Rees, who is an ally of Mr. Siegel's in the incorporation drive.
Mr. Rees said he wants to make sure that the property isn't a "white elephant."
But when Mr. Rees suggested at a recent council meeting that an appraisal be conducted of the 5-acre parcel the council plans to buy, CA's finance director, Robert Krawczak, advised against it. He argued that the deal has to be weighed as a package.
Rouse Co. officials say that the $1 million price-tag for the 5 acres is in line with what the company would charge for comparable land elsewhere in Columbia zoned for manufacturing.
Another source of controversy is the council's plan to put the project on a fast track, with approval due in early February, several weeks before the Feb. 27 meeting at which the council is due to adopt its budget.
"It makes it easier for CA to negotiate the best possible deal if we decide to go ahead sooner rather than later," Mr. Berson said.
But Mr. Siegel is troubled by the fast-track proposal.
"There are serious unanswered questions," he said. "Do people want it? Is is really worth it?"