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A year of stores, smoking, garbage Judges' nasty race and death of Rouse also made headlines

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For most Howard County residents, 1996 will be remembered for three things: shopping, smoking and garbage.

It was a year in which Columbia's village centers fought a mostly losing battle against megastores, smokers were told to butt out of restaurants and homeowners had to ante up for their garbage.

It also was a year in which candidates in the county's nasty Circuit Court race each were willing to dig into their pockets and spend more than half of the job's yearly $93,500 salary to finance their campaigns.

As Columbia mourned the death of its founder, James W. Rouse, in April, his dream of neighborhoods surrounding thriving village centers appeared to be on shaky ground. Who would have thought when Columbia was founded 30 years ago that residents would flock to warehouse-sized "big box" stores lined up like battleships along Columbia's borders?

Even the desire to shop for cars on Sunday soon will be satisfied by the used-car superstore CarMax, thanks to the repeal in the spring of blue laws banning Sunday auto sales in Howard.

Only one proposed megastore hit rocky ground -- Total Beverage, a beer-and-wine monster the size of an ice rink. Of course, Total Beverage had to contend with a powerful, odd, two-headed enemy when its application for a county sales license was opposed by small liquor stores and a Baptist church.

And in the final weeks of the year, the Rouse Co. announced a coup in its effort to woo shoppers back to Columbia's Town Center. The popular Nordstrom department store chain is expected to open at The Mall in Columbia by 2000.

Having a mall as its downtown is part of what makes Columbia Columbia. So does the Columbia Association (CA), the $40 million private corporation that manages the planned community. That strange form of governance, though, seems OK with many residents, as evidenced by the failure to turn Columbia into the state's second-largest city.

The small group pushing for incorporation simply disbanded for lack of interest.

No smoking

The only group that seemed to struggle more than Columbia's village centers this year was smokers. Tobacco users were shut out of Howard restaurants in July when the strictest smoking law in the state went into effect.

The new rules prohibit smoking in restaurants except in separately ventilated, enclosed bar areas, forcing most of the county's 300 restaurants to eliminate smoking, exploit loopholes or hire a high-priced tobacco lobbyist to fight the new rules.

Another restrictive rule enacted in Howard County this year had county homeowners reaching deeper into their pockets to pay for something they throw away: garbage.

The county imposed a $125 annual trash fee and cut by half the amount of garbage homeowners may put out, creating the most restrictive limit in the Baltimore area.

The year also saw candidates for the county's most esteemed judicial positions talking trash -- about one another. The bitter campaign for two circuit judgeships divided county lawyers and politicians and ended with the ouster of Howard's first African-American judge.

Yet, when it came time for one of the winners, Lenore R. Gelfman, to be sworn in, she did all she could to keep the ceremony secret, holding it early the day after Thanksgiving. One circuit judge said he didn't even find out about the ceremony until he arrived at the courthouse -- after it was over.

In the realm of the County Council, members C. Vernon Gray and Charles C. Feaga got into scraps with the county Ethics Commission but emerged unscathed. Gray, a Democrat, also took his lumps when council Republicans examined and criticized his cellular telephone spending and expense account.

Will he run?

At the end of 1996, observers of County Executive Charles I. Ecker were still wondering whether the Republican would run for governor in 1998.

Ecker seemed to be scratching his head over how to ease traffic problems in east Columbia -- particularly at the troublesome intersection of Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway.

At one point this year, Ecker's solution would have given Howard a place in the annals of state transportation history by making it Maryland's first county to adopt a "dispersed movement" intersection. But no one understood what it meant -- much less how it worked -- so it was rejected.

For those who still needed proof that the wheels of county government turn slowly -- particularly when influenced by powerful lawyers -- they should look at the Board of Appeals. It took the board 10 months to support Kingdon Gould Jr.'s request to open a quarry in Jessup.

Meanwhile, Route 100 -- decades in the making -- opened from Interstate 95 to Interstate 97, providing Howard commuters with an $85 million gateway to Anne Arundel County and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport area. By 1999, Route 100 is scheduled to reach U.S. 29.

Drivers headed to Main Street in Ellicott City still were looking for a place to park -- unless they were willing to feed the new parking meters and keep their visits to less than an hour.

Snowbound

About the only time no one was worried about traffic and parking was in January, when the county -- and the entire Eastern seaboard -- was socked by a record snowfall. Many Columbia residents were snowbound longer than others in Howard when snow removal crews ran into trouble clearing the community's cul-de-sacs and oddly designed roads.

The storm hit homeowners' wallets months later, in September, when major insurers began increasing premiums, at least partly because of claims they paid for snow damage.

In the county schools, Howard's students continued to score higher on state exams than their peers in other systems, but few issues attracted more interest than the cover of the school calendar.

The covers of the system's 43,000 calendars were replaced in the fall because the cover photo was deemed racially insensitive -- prompting howls of outrage over how it could happen, and howls from those who opposed efforts to change it.

A critical evaluation of the county's middle schools drew cheers and support from parents frustrated by what they call an overemphasis on self-esteem and a lack of time spent on academics. The school system has tossed out its middle school goals, and more changes are sure to come next year.

Crime

Several high-profile crimes occurred in Howard over the year, including the rape of a 15-year-old waiting to be picked up by her mother outside the library in Columbia's Town Center. The attack struck fear in parents and prompted a study of the central library's safety -- which police and library officials declined to make public.

As 1996 ends, the county has recorded five murders (including, for the third year in a row, a slaying near the Christmas holiday).

The disappearance of Nancy Lee Riggins has left Elkridge residents and her grocery store co-workers with a host of questions. A billboard on U.S. 1 asking for clues stands as a reminder that the case remains open.

What was thought to be the county's worst hate-bias crime of the year was actually its worst hoax. A North Laurel woman's apartment appeared to have been ransacked and spray-painted with racial epithets.

The attack drew on the public's sympathy -- until police said the woman faked the attack for insurance money.

Sympathy also went out to 16 pet lovers when the county sued the owner of Elkridge's pet cemetery alleging that he gave the customers the cremated remains of others' animals and never delivered costly grave markers. An employee said former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's black Labrador Willie II was kicked by cemetery employees before burial -- the footprints were wiped off before the dog was dropped into the casket.

A county police sergeant was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman in his patrol car.

A $4,000, seven-month investigation of massage parlors brought ridicule when it was revealed that officers engaged in sex acts during dozens of visits to the facilities. Only two of the suspects were prosecuted and made to surrender their licenses for a year.

Even the county jail drew controversy this year. Allegations of inmate beatings led to indictments of correctional officers and the revelation that a supervisor wasn't certified.

Two male officers also were dismissed after allegations of sexual misconduct with a female inmate.

Other problems

Not far from the jail, a regional composting facility in Dorsey was temporarily closed after months of neighborhood complaints about a terrible odor, and the Maryland-Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative in North Laurel was fined in May for dumping waste and creating a foul stench.

And what year would be complete without a look at some of Howard County's colorful characters, including:

A man who wears no shoes.

Two hunters who claimed to have felled the same deer in western Howard. They ended up taking their battle to Circuit Court. One received jail time for assault, but neither apparently won the deer.

A man who gives tours of the trees in his neighborhood.

An Ellicott City tax protester who admitted not filing tax returns for at least the past decade -- who needs H&R; Block? -- but was acquitted of charges of conspiracy to evade taxes.

A father-and-son team known as "Dial-A-Nerds." The two won a zoning battle to keep their computer consulting business in a basement in Riverside Estates.

An Ellicott City software developer who put a Howard traffic ordinance prohibiting "for sale" signs in parked cars on public roads to the test of the U.S. Constitution -- and won.

A woman who sings the national anthem in ballparks across the country.

A Glenwood developer who was convicted of turning Howard's booming residential market into a vehicle for laundering drug money from a ring that brought more than 3 tons of marijuana to Maryland over a decade.

This year-in-review might not be exactly how you remembered ** Howard County in 1996, but none of it can be as wrong as the county's Board of Elections was for two days last month.

The board gave out the wrong vote totals on three proposed changes to the county constitution, saying the proposals had failed by a landslide -- including an innocuous proposal to change one phrase in the constitution from "Appeal Boards" to "Board of Appeals."

Actually, the measures had won by a landslide. Oops.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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