Eleven years ago, my family and I moved to Columbia from New England, where, for want of a better description, we lived in a slum.
Our house in Hartford, Conn. was a quaint, turn-of-the century residence with three apartments, one of which we lived in and the other two we rented out. Most of our neighbors were fine people who took care of their homes and watched out for each other. But it was in a neighborhood that had had its crack at urban renewal and was losing rapidly. All around us was $H deterioration and it was encroaching on everything.
Columbia, for us, was a culture shock, although I have to admit, its pristine, suburban ambience was a welcome relief. Now, many years later, part of Columbia -- in fact, the place I chose as my home when I arrived here -- is being referred to in ways I haven't heard since leaving Hartford. At a town meeting in Harper's Choice last week, several residents told Howard County and Columbia Council officials that their neighborhood is beginning to show signs of disrepair that are threatening property values.
"It's beginning to look like a slum," said Amelia Rogers, a 25-year resident. Other residents talked about dirty streets, broken lampposts, peeling paint and old roofs.
I can't say these things constitute signs of a slum, but I'm not surprised that some are making the observation. After 28 years, parts of Columbia -- not just in Harper's Choice -- are beginning to show their age. Older village centers are starting to look shabby and some homes are being badly neglected.
As the second oldest Columbia community, Harper's Choice should be expected to exhibit these signs of aging -- and it does. But Harper's Choice is still a dynamic community. It is growing and improving, even as parts of it seem to be in decline.
A new community of large, single-family homes is under construction at the Trails at Woodlot, and some of the most expensive homes in Columbia are being built around the village's golf course at Hobbit's Glen.
Harper's Choice, in fact, has a potential that is unlike any slum I have seen. But it also has challenges, not the least of which is for its residents to avoid the feelings of helplessness and inertia that infect so many older urban communities.
For residents who have lived in Columbia for a long time and become accustomed to its relative newness and affluence, it is painful to watch the city's aging process.
Officials at the Rouse Co. have already begun to discuss urban renewal projects in parts of Columbia, where the buildings are scarely a quarter-century old. But because these buildings were not constructed to last for a century or more, maintenance and renewal is unavoidable.
Because of the wisdom of the Rouse Co. in setting up Columbia, residents do have a way of combating decline in their communities if they are persistent.
The Columbia covenants give officials authority to enforce maintenance standards on individual property owners.
Every village has an architectural committee made up of residents who field complaints and rule on potential violations of the covenants. Continued infractions can be referred to the Columbia Association and ultimately, the courts.
But the Columbia Association has been lax in pursuing remedies through the courts, undermining the integrity of the system by allowing some residents to openly defy it.
Citizen complaints, however, have begun to force a change. The association is proposing to increase its funding for covenant enforcement tenfold next year, spending $90,000 to take more cases to court.
It's a large step in the right direction, but it will require additional increases as more and more properties fall into disrepair.
The beauty of the Columbia system is that it really is peer enforcement. It requires that neighbors report violations and insist that they be taken care of.
"Maintenance and upkeep of property is as valid as the initial construction in determining the quality of a community," Rouse Co. Vice President Alton J. Scavo says.
Although the Rouse Co. has little direct say over residential properties once they are sold, the company does have an interest in seeing deterioration kept to a minimum. Aesthetics have always been critical to the ongoing success of the city.
Toward that end, the Rouse Co. has hired an architect to write guidelines that can be used by village architectural committees to identify common maintenance problems and suggest reasonable solutions. The guidelines could lead to a uniform standard for covenant enforcement throughout Columbia, making the process less of a subjective exercise for those involved.
If the result is that the rules are made clear for all residents, and the consequences for violating them are swift and certain, than the effort is well worth it.
Columbia need not succumb easily to the inevitable consequences of age. But defying time requires diligence by everyone, every step of the way.
Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.