At a time when it is cracking down on residents who don't keep their homes shipshape, the Columbia Association is accused of letting itself go to pot.
Weeds and grass sprouting in playgrounds, dead flowers ringing neighborhood entrance signs, algae choking some local lakes - all in a community where there's such a thing as court-ordered curb appeal.
"It looks like we live in a ghetto," said Dolores Rayfield of Long Reach, who complains that scraggly landscaping made it hard to read some village entrance signs this summer. "The flowers and weeds were so high, you're not sure if you're entering a village or a Third World country."
Blame it on Mother Nature and Alan Greenspan: Heavy summer rain made it tough to keep the grass in check, and the healthy economy made seasonal help scarce.
But the Columbia Association is taking its lumps, too, because the problems sprouted just as the association started getting tough with homeowners who violated the community's legally enforceable architectural covenants - taking them to court, suspending their pool privileges, sending inspectors around to sniff out peeling paint and broken downspouts.
"We're very pro-active about the covenants - 'Please mow your grass. Mow your grass. You better mow your grass,'" said Jane Parrish, village manager for Hickory Ridge. "A lot of people are saying, 'Hey, open space looks terrible behind my house. Why are you picking on me?'"
Charles Rhodehamel, the association's vice president for open space management, acknowledged that open space crews have not kept things as spiffy as usual this year. He said the problem has nothing to do with the fact that he is wearing two hats these days. (His other job is acting Columbia Association president.)
Look to the skies
Rhodehamel said there was nothing he could have done in either post to change what he called the real culprits: a cool, wet summer and a tight labor market.
"It's really both of those whamming together this year," he said. "This was a tough era to go through. Literally every time you turned around, the skies had opened up again."
The rain not only prevented crews from working some days, but made the grass and weeds grow more quickly. Long after the rain had stopped, low-lying open space areas were often too soggy to use heavy, 6-foot-wide riding mowers, which can weigh as much as a compact car, Rhodehamel said.
"You have to have firm conditions, or it's going to bog down," he said.
The heavy rain also washed more nutrients into Lake Elkhorn and other lakes, causing algae to grow more quickly than Rhodehamel's crews could skim it off.
At the same time, there was a drought of seasonal help.
The open space division has a year-round crew of about 40 people, but it has to hire extra workers for the "busy season" of spring through fall, Rhodehamel said. This year, the department has had trouble attracting and retaining those seasonal workers, who earn $7 to $10.50 an hour. The division was able to fill only four of the eight seasonal slots that opened up in the spring, Rhodehamel said. Eight seasonal workers are on the payroll now, but the association could use 12, he said.
"What we used to call the seasonal worker, the summer worker, is getting harder and harder to find in the labor market out there," he said.
Many residents and village officials say they understand that the weather and the economy are out of Rhodehamel's control. But they still express frustration with the state of open space this year.
Though crews are catching up now, several village boards, including Kings Contrivance, have sent letters of complaint to the Columbia Association. Some of the boards have asked the Columbia Council to allocate more money for open space maintenance in the next budget.
Key annexation debate
The shaggy state of open space has made its way into one of the community's most intense debates - whether the association should annex the so-called Key property, a future Rouse Co. development in North Laurel.
Critics of annexation note the maintenance problems as proof that the association cannot handle what it has now, much less a new development, which would add about 1,200 homes and about 2 million square feet of commercial space to Kings Contrivance village.
Annexation supporters, meanwhile, say the development's projected financial benefit to the Columbia Association - as much as $22.8 million over 20 years - could be used to address existing needs, including open space.
"I think it's a big problem," said Anne Dodd, village manager for Kings Contrivance. "One of the things that is particularly disturbing is the entrances to the neighborhoods. That affects the curb appeal of the whole village."