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A deal too good to be true? * Rouse Co.-Columbia Association swap seems like a 'win-win.' Is it?


ANY DEAL between the Columbia Association and the Rouse Co. is bound to raise suspicion. The tangled history of the institutions has long struck some Columbia residents as too cozy, even though the association, which manages Columbia's recreational facilities, officially broke from the Rouse Co., developer of the new town, in the early 1980s.

Given this backdrop, it's not surprising that questions dog an agreement the association appears ready to strike. It plans to purchase two parcels of Rouse Co. land -- some of which is contaminated -- in exchange for assessment rights on another lucrative parcel. The assessment rights will allow the Columbia Association to collect about $300,000 in additional revenue a year, easily recouping the $1 million it will pay for the other properties within four years.

The deal appears to benefit both parties. The Rouse Co. gets to dispose of land in its portfolio that was going nowhere as far as development was concerned. The association profits by the assessment.

The association is considering the deal because it wants to build a recreational vehicle park. It needs a place for Columbians to park their RVs, which covenants disallow in residential areas. But that is also the parcel contaminated by a now-shuttered General Electric plant; experts say the pollution does not preclude an RV park being built there.

Some observers continue to be troubled by the leap of faith that this convoluted deal requires. Why would the Rouse Co. essentially impose a tax on itself, with the new assessment obligation, just to be rid of this land? Should all the experts be wrong and the property prove a liability, what will association officials say then? Surely, Howard County has other examples where landfills were deemed environmentally safe only to be discovered otherwise.

Still, the aspects that make this deal so troubling may be the very factors that legitimize it. Association officials are not likely to do anything to raise further doubts about where their loyalties lie. To do so, would set back the institution at a time when reform-minded critics are looking for rallying points. Absent a smoking gun to the contrary, the deal appears advantageous to both parties and should be pursued. Only time will test this theory.

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