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Columbia Council approves $1 million land purchase RV storage planned for former GE site


Heeding an environmental attorney's advice that public health risks were minimal, the Columbia Council approved last night a $1 million purchase of about 5 acres of land in east Columbia, including a contaminated parcel.

One of the two parcels the Columbia Association bought from the Rouse Co. in the former General Electric Co. manufacturing park is the site planned for a recreational-vehicle (RV) storage facility that would help residents comply with Columbia's strict property-maintenance guidelines.

However, the council -- the nonprofit association's elected board of directors -- postponed a vote on that project until it completes a review of a Columbia Association financial analysis showing options for running the facility, security measures and parking space rates.

The construction of a lot for campers, boats and possibly commercial vehicles is projected to cost between $315,000 and $350,000.

The unanimous vote approving the purchase, which was contingent upon an environmental study, concludes an unusual deal between Rouse -- Columbia's developer -- and the association it established 30 years ago, a transaction some criticized as too cozy.

Under the agreement, Rouse would grant the association the right to impose its tax-like levy on two large properties now excluded from the charge -- the Snowden Square retail center and a nearby parcel where about 600 housing units are planned. Those properties -- both on the site of the former 1,100-acre GE appliance park off Route 175 in east Columbia -- are expected eventually to generate $300,000 in annual revenues for the association.

That potential income has led several council members to call the deal a bargain even if the land were to remain idle.

But several residents and council members have charged that Rouse shouldn't be in the business of selling assessment rights to the association.

The second parcel -- included to sweeten the deal -- is a 2.3 acre lot in the nearby Gateway business park and isn't contaminated, according to the environmental study. The council has no plans for that land, but the association's staff has suggested construction of a $1 million "executive fitness center" for business park employees.

Randall M. Lutz, the Baltimore attorney who advised the council, said the health risks associated with building an RV lot on the contaminated parcel would be remote as long as public water is provided and the area is paved. Tests found low levels of heavy metals in ground water and soil contamination, he said.

"There doesn't appear to be any exposure pathways that would be a risk to someone's health," Mr. Lutz told council members. "I don't see any reason why the Columbia Association can't go forward with the purchase of these properties."

But several council members expressed concern that residents might not be willing to pay to use a 214-space RV lot. tTC Recommended rental fees range from $1 to $2 per linear foot per month -- or between $240 and $480 annually for a 20-foot space.

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