Group warns town about incorporation


A new group formed to counterbalance the movement to turn Columbia into a city challenged yesterday the validity of the incorporation proponents' petition and the wisdom of seeking the drastic change.

In their first press conference, the leaders of the new group -- who boast a long history of involvement with Columbia's leading institutions -- said they are concerned that incorporating Columbia could harm the planned community's relationship with the county, damage social harmony and add a more expensive, additional layer of government.

They said the purpose of their group, called Columbians for Howard County, is to warn residents of the pitfalls that could result from the political campaign waged by incorporation proponents since last fall.

"Why use a cannon when you can use a pea shooter?" Henry Seidel, a longtime Columbia resident, said in opposition to making major changes in the planned community's governance structure.

His wife, longtime community activist May Ruth Seidel, added: "We want more facts. From an emotional point of view, we're not real happy with the concept of incorporation. We've got concerns about what it would do to the relationship with Howard County, taxes and the quality of life.

"We want to try to find out answers to many unanswered questions," she said. "It's very important if people are going to sign the petition and vote on a referendum that they know what they're doing."

The first public statements by the group skeptical of incorporation comes just two weeks before the Columbia Association (CA) -- the nonprofit group that administers the planned community's amenities -- holds the first of a series of public symposia on the governance issue.

One of the new group's founders challenged the methods of the Columbia Municipal League Inc., the group that has been seeking a Columbia-wide referendum on incorporation since last fall.

Fran Wishnick, until last year a member of CA's elected board, HTC highlighted a key technical question -- defining who lives in Columbia -- that she said shows a "lack of basic research" by the municipal league.

Incorporation proponents have not defined the precise boundaries for the new city. Their petition says registered voters of the area zoned "New Town" -- the county land-use guidelines under which Columbia was created and developed -- would vote on the referendum.

Ms. Wishnick pointed out that some areas that now come under the annual levy of the Columbia Association aren't zoned New Town, most notably the Dorsey Hall community. The Rouse Co., Columbia's developer, added that area to Columbia's land inventory long after the county created the New Town classification in 1965.

Also, a few areas are zoned New Town but don't come under the association's annual levy, she said, adding that the petition's wording causes confusion regarding who would be eligible to vote and who would pay taxes to a municipality.

"We've discovered a major flaw in the petition drive so far," said Ms. Wishnick. "I'd venture to say the signatures gathered so far under this wording are probably invalid."

Incorporation proponents -- while welcoming Columbians for Howard County into the debate over the planned community's future -- responded that the new group is focusing on technicalities that would be resolved over time as a city charter is developed rather than examining more important, broader issues.

They said "New Town" was used on the petition to describe Columbia -- an amorphous, fragmented land mass -- for the sake of simplicity.

"I welcome a group with different views on the issue," said Rabbi Martin Siegel, spokesman for the incorporation proponents. "Healthy dialogue is essential to good democracy. But if the result is to turn the discussion of incorporation into a narrow discussion of mechanics between technocrats, they will do a significant disservice to the process.

"The underlying questions must not be avoided: Is Columbia better off as a democracy or administered by a very large, relatively undemocratic homeowners association? Are human rights more important than property rights? I'd like their feelings about those issues first," he said.

The Columbia Municipal League says it has collected more than 3,000 signatures from Columbia voters toward the roughly 10,000 signatures required for it to present a petition and proposed city charter seeking approval by the Howard County Council of a referendum.

The municipal league says it wants to replace CA -- the private body that oversees recreational facilities, community programs and parkland in the 82,000-resident community -- with a cheaper and more efficient, accountable and democratic government.

Leaders of the newly formed counter-group -- Columbians for Howard County -- contend that Columbia needs only some fine-tuning, not an overhaul, such as changing community election rules to allow one vote per person rather than per household. The community's unique administration by CA and 10 village associations -- coupled with an effective county government -- works well, they say.

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