Columbia Association officials say a deal with the Rouse Co. to build a controversial recreational vehicle storage park has been sweetened by an option to acquire land in an office park and possibly develop it into a $1 million "executive fitness center."
The office park -- Gateway Plaza in east Columbia -- is a Rouse development that could become more attractive to prospective renters with the proposed fitness center.
Several Columbia Council members hailed the evolving $1.4 million RV park deal as a good investment, which now looks better. From the start, the deal has involved the association buying land from Rouse in exchange for gaining the right to impose its annual levy on two new commercial and residential properties.
"This is a substantially better deal than the original," Council Vice Chairman David W. Berson of River Hill village said at Thursday's meeting. "I was convinced in the beginning it was a good deal. I think it's an even better deal now."
But the deal's critics continue to question whether the Columbia Association -- the nonprofit corporation that oversees Columbia's facilities and services at the council's direction -- is acting in the interests of Columbia residents or its own business interests.
"In developing its future projects, CA has to decide whether it's a business developing its own resources or an institution which serves the interests of Columbia citizens," said Rabbi Martin Siegel, spokesman for Columbia Municipal League, a citizen group that is leading a drive to incorporate Columbia as a city.
Alex Hekimian, president of the watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia, called the new proposal "hodge-podge-type decision-making," noting that Rouse traditionally has donated land for recreational facilities.
"CA is being used by the developer to provide amenities for the developer," he said.
At the Thursday night meeting, the council also debated how to follow up on its two recent symposiums on Columbia's governance -- if at all -- before tabling the issue. Council members clashed over whether they should "set the agenda" by hiring a consultant to research implications of incorporating or simply react to the pro-incorporation group's proposals.
On the RV park, under the original deal -- tentatively approved in February as part of the association's 1995-1996 budget -- the association would pay Rouse $1 million for about 5 acres in a former General Electric manufacturing park off Snowden River Parkway and would spend $400,000 to develop the storage area.
The RV park is needed to help residents comply with Columbia's property maintenance guidelines, which prohibit parking campers and boats on residential lots, association officials say.
In exchange, Rouse would place under the Columbia Association's levy two properties now excluded from the charge -- the Snowden Square retail center and a residential parcel planned for about 600 housing units. Over 20 years, revenue would exceed costs by about $1.2 million, according to an auditor's report commissioned by the council.
Association officials have acknowledged that only 2 to 3 acres are needed for the RV park. Also, the RV site is adjacent to two sites formerly used as hazardous waste dumps by General Electric, whose contamination is now being monitored by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
After the budget was adopted, association and Rouse officials negotiated two other options, including one that would allow the association to acquire 2.3 acres in the nearby Gateway office park and build the RV facility on just 3 acres of the originally proposed 5-acre industrial site.
Association President Padraic Kennedy said acquiring the 2.3-acre parcel would give the association several options, including building an executive fitness center tailored for office park employees, selling the land or developing it as a Columbia Association retail outlet, such as a sporting goods store or golf shop.
A fitness center would cost between $1 million and $1.25 million and could generate enough revenue to cover debt and earn a profit, according to association estimates. But Mr. Kennedy emphasized that a fitness center wouldn't be built until more businesses move into Gateway.
Several residents and village board members have cautioned the council recently to hold the line on expensive capital projects and focus on reducing the association's $90 million debt.
Rouse officials did not return phone calls Friday.
A third option for the RV park deal would simply allow the association to buy 5 acres a little more distant from the area near the contaminated sites than the parcel originally proposed.
The council may vote on which RV park option to pursue at its April 27 meeting. The RV site purchase is contingent upon an independent environmental assessment, according to an earlier decision by the council.
Regarding the continuing debate on Columbia's governance, several council members criticized the pro-incorporation group, the Columbia Municipal League, for failing to offer specifics of their plan for a city and basing its case for change on "innuendo."
"What we have here is good and strong. It's a real people-kind-of-thing," said Councilwoman Hope Sachwald of Harper's Choice village. "I don't know about anyone else, but I've made up my mind. I don't want to be living in a municipality or I'd be living in Baltimore."