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Citizens seek referendum on health club, SportsPark Projects approved by CA, but opponents want nonbinding advisory vote


Opponents of the controversial River Hill village health club and the Harper's Choice SportsPark -- approved by Columbia Association's board of directors this week -- are calling for a citizen referendum on whether the multimillion-dollar projects should be built.

The 17 Columbians -- many of whom boast long records of service in the planned community -- are trying to make use of CA's little-known Advisory Vote Policy. Under the policy, a group can send a CA issue to a nonbinding citizen vote if it collects 2,500 signatures during a 90-day period.

The group, led by May Ruth Seidel of Hickory Ridge, says Columbians opposed to the projects have been largely ignored by CA, the large homeowners association that manages Columbia's recreation and park facilities.

But supporters of the facilities point to a series of public debates on the projects over the past two years. Board member David Berson, a champion of the $6.3 million River Hill facility, said the opponents are grasping at straws.

"I view it [the referendum drive] as a last-ditch attempt to do whatever possible to stop the club," Berson said.

He and five others on the 10-member board approved the River Hill club as part of an overall, $49 million spending plan that was finalized last night -- a total operating and capital budget that is a 26 percent increase over current levels.

The three-story River Hill facility -- with a swimming pool, basketball-volleyball gym, weight rooms, dance studio and other amenities -- is expected to open by summer 1998.

Berson and others say it will relieve overcrowding at CA's two health clubs and eventually bring in millions of dollars in profits for the association.

The SportsPark will have an open-air ice rink, miniature golf course and batting cages. The rink portion could be open by the end of the year.

Proponents say it will not be as profitable as the River Hill facility, but will offer unique activities to residents and help revitalize the Harper's Choice village center.

Although a citizen vote is non-binding, the opponents hope public opinion will force the board to scrap one or both projects.

"People on the [board] would

really have to search their souls," said Seidel, co-founder of Columbians for Howard County, a group trying to make reforms in CA.

She is particularly concerned about the River Hill facility, saying citizens in the middle of Columbia do not want to fund a facility on the edge of Columbia that will -- initially at least -- add to CA's $90 million debt.

"I've heard more discontent over this than anything else" CA has ever proposed, said Seidel, who has lived in Columbia since 1970.

Berson expects the projects to proceed. He said the referendum drive would have been appropriate about 10 months ago. To start it so late in the budget process is simply a stalling tactic.

Seidel agreed as much: "They're going to say it's a delaying action, and sure, it is."

Other highlights of CA's budget for the fiscal year that begins May 1 include:

A total $36.1 million operating budget, a 5.6 percent increase over current spending.

$9.6 million in salary and wages, a 6 percent increase over current levels, for CA's 185 full-time staffers and about 1,000 part-time staffers. CA spokeswoman Pam Mack said more staff will be hired and wages will increase an average of 3.5 percent.

$9.3 million in interest payments on CA's debt, a 5.6 percent increase.

$24,700 in additional funding for the River Hill Community Association, which had appealed to the board for more money, saying it was bringing in less income than anticipated because it was having trouble renting out its small meeting room. River Hill also wants to increase staff hours and wages.

A $12.9 million capital budget, a 243 percent increase over the current capital budget. The jump is due to the new facilities. Capital budgets are expected to fall to about $5 million a year from fiscal 1999-2006, according to CA's economic models.

Overall, the budget remains fairly close to the original one written by CA staffers. The 10-member board added several construction projects -- increasing the capital budget by $148,860, according to CA documents.

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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