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A maturing Columbia at a crossroads


Even planned communities encounter the unplanned.

Suddenly, Columbia, the suburban town that has run on autopilot for years - with good schools, low crime and a diverse population - is facing uncertainty on several fronts.

Officials are searching for a new Columbia Association president after a divisive debate over the 20-month tenure of former President Deborah O. McCarty. Some activists are pushing to make Columbia a city, eliminating the large, volunteer-based homeowners association that governs its 87,000 residents. And some association supporters question whether the system has outlived its usefulness now that the community is showing its age.

"I think the community overall - the association overall - has taken a big breath, and everyone is trying to sort of regroup and reassess to see how we can work together to do things," said Adam Rich, a member of the Columbia Council.

McCarty's resignation this month left the community without its de facto mayor at a time when strong leadership is considered crucial. The vacuum has renewed debate about ways the unincorporated city - the second largest in Maryland - could be governed in a more efficient, professional way.

Though it levies the equivalent of a tax on its property owners, Columbia is not governed by a municipal body but an elected group of unpaid volunteers who oversee a $50 million annual budget and often struggle to reach consensus.

"It's come to the point where things have gone wrong and people aren't really taking care of us anymore," said Susan Boehm, a schoolteacher and resident of Wilde Lake.

There is a lot at stake as the debate begins. The next president will have to guide the community through a time when it faces a flattening of revenue - little new development is to come - and an aging infrastructure.

Boundary issue

Columbia's older villages are demanding more attention, now that they have become frayed around the edges, and officials are trying to determine how best to enforce covenants designed to preserve property values.

At the same time, the new council must decide whether to extend Columbia's boundaries by annexing 517 acres being developed by the Rouse Co. in North Laurel. The mixed-use development, known as the Key property, would become part of Kings Contrivance village, and its property owners would be subject to the Columbia Association lien.

Some think cityhood is the answer. They say it will create a system where voting is more democratic, officials are held more accountable, and state and federal funds are more readily available.

"Either you want to reform Columbia's governing body or you don't," resident Charles Oliver declared at a recent community meeting.

Others, with busy lives, are content with the bottom line. They fear an added layer of government bureaucracy and say incorporation would be like trading one set of politicians for another.

Martin Cohen said he doesn't care who runs the town "if the trains are running on time."

Somewhere in the middle is council representative Vince Marando, who has urged his colleagues to use the recent turmoil to rethink the status quo. He believes the Columbia Association, which provides many services and operates recreational facilities, has inherent structural flaws.

"This is a long process, and we shouldn't get tired in this process," he said. "We're doing more than just tinkering. We have to look at all the options."

Changing the structure to make it more uniform throughout Columbia's 10 villages is one approach. Some villages have one-year council terms, others have two. A few allow "one man, one vote," while the rest have one vote per household.

Because membership on the council often changes, the body is perpetually bogged down because of the learning curve. This year, five of the 10 members are new to the board. Last year, four were new.

"That provides no certainty to the community, and it certainly doesn't provide certainty to the organization or the staff, so I don't think we're serving anyone particularly well," said council representative Cecilia Januszkiewicz.

Further, while council members serve the village residents who elected them, they also have to represent the interests of CA as members of its board.

Norma Rose, a former Columbia Council chairwoman, said the homeowners association created 30 years ago by the Rouse Co. wasn't meant for the public management of a "mature" community. The challenge is harnessing the activism of those who feel the same way.

"It's easier just to let things go on," said Rose in a recent interview. "To make fundamental changes is very hard work."

A group of two dozen residents, many of them Columbia pioneers, met recently to exchange ideas and lay the groundwork for what could become the most serious push for institutional change in five years.

Lloyd Smith, who has lived in Columbia for more than 20 years, said he has become increasingly uncomfortable with life in the planned community, in part because of perceived "inequalities."

Some residents say the city's older, less affluent villages are neglected and rundown; some of Columbia's older schools have been shunned by upwardly mobile, mostly white families.

"I want it to be better, and I guess incorporation is the light at the end of the tunnel," Smith said.

Strategy meeting

The Columbia Council will meet this week to discuss its strategy for finding a president. The board has given no indication how quickly it plans to move and whether the search will be national or close to home.

Rose, who sat on the committee that chose McCarty - a former Atlanta parks director - from about 100 candidates two years ago, favors a wide search.

"I think it's good to get a different perspective, and that was definitely the thinking of the people who participated in the [last] search," she said. "Before, the Columbia Association was a very in-grown organization and, above all, I hope that it doesn't return to that."

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