Groups decide to band together; Community issues the focus; first public meeting is tonight


Since he moved to Old Columbia Pike in Ellicott City six years ago, Robert I. Bernstein has been involved in more development issues than he'd like.

And each time -- first battling Long Gate Shopping Center, more recently a proposed group home on the historic Keewaydin property -- he had the nagging sense that if he and his neighbors only knew what they were doing, they would be a lot more successful.

That's what gave Bernstein, president of the Old Columbia Pike Association, the idea to form an association of Ellicott City's many community associations. He envisioned a group that would allow the town's roughly 40 community associations to band together, share knowledge and perhaps become advocates on each other's behalf.

After months of behind-the-scenes planning, the Ellicott City Residents' Association is holding its first public meeting at 7 p.m. today in the Tyson Room of the George Howard Building. Bernstein said the group probably will become formal sometime next month.

"My long-term goal is just to level the playing field," Bernstein said. Like others involved in the group, he feels over-whelmed by the rapid development taking place in the county, and he says the county favors the desires of developers over those of citizens.

"The developers have money and attorneys," said David Catania, treasurer of the Wheatfield Homeowners Association in Ellicott City and a supporter of the new residents association. "The residents have mental equity and votes. What we want to do is consolidate that mental power and offer that as assistance to homeowners associations within Ellicott City."

He said the group will tackle not only development issues but also transportation, the environment, recreation and government.

"Our main focus is the quality of life and general welfare of Ellicott City," he said.

Catania said about 15 associations have committed to be part of the residents association, and the members hope publicity will attract more people.

He said members have not decided whether they will provide information or become advocates for each other.

Regardless of that debate's outcome, he and Bernstein have faith the group will empower the homeowners associations.

"There is certainly safety in numbers," Bernstein said. "And, where you could possibly dismiss a homeowners association that has 160 members, it's a little tougher to dismiss an organization that represents three or four thousand members."

Bernstein said he'd like to invite guest speakers to the group, such as Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county director of planning and zoning, and perhaps well-known development lawyers.

"My major impetus is the education of different people," Bernstein said.

Christopher J. Merdon, councilman for the Ellicott City area, said he has met with Bernstein and thinks the new group is a "great idea" that will empower citizens.

Andrea Thomas, a member of the St. John's Community Association, wishes the Ellicott City Residents' Association had been in existence last year, when her neighborhood began battling a proposed church building on a half-acre lot on her street. The Board of Appeals approved the project, and the community association appealed to Circuit Court. Thomas said the community is still awaiting a decision.

Thomas, like many citizens who become involved in development battles, was amazed at how difficult it was to understand the process. "You really have to be an attorney to be able to properly present your case," she said. "The rules should be written in plainer English."

Thomas said she looks forward to sharing her knowledge of the process with other community associations.

"I just think some of the things that I've learned might possibly help another community," she said.

Her advice? "Get a legal representative at an early stage because you cannot even fathom what's going to happen."

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