Columbia really must be an odd duck if, at the ripe old age of 33, the town is still a mystery to many people, including some who live there.
The Columbia Association, which provides recreational services to the community of 87,000, is a nonprofit corporation.
It's also a homeowners association.
At times, it looks an awful lot like a municipal government, which it's not.
"It's a hybrid, that's why," said Helen Ruther, a former Columbia councilwoman. "It has quasi-governmental features. ... It's a private corporation and part homeowners association. It's not easy to explain."
Ruther and two other panelists will do their best to describe what the Howard County community is tonight at a forum called "Columbia: What Is It and What Is Its Significance in Howard County?" Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Howard County, the free program begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building, 3430 Court House Drive, Ellicott City.
The other panelists are Raymond S. Wacks, Howard County's budget director, and Cyril B. Paumier Jr., who helped design Columbia as the Rouse Co.'s chief land planner from 1969 to 1971.
Carole Conors, president of the League of Women Voters, said she saw a need for the program because so many people are confused about the community.
"People don't know what Columbia is," she said. "They don't understand how it's governed. What its relationship is to the county."
Conors acknowledges sharing that confusion, even though she is married to a Columbia councilman, Robert Conors.
When she and her husband moved from New Jersey to Dorsey's Search 10 years ago, she didn't know their new home was in Columbia. The home has an Ellicott City address, but it is part of the planned community.
"I found out about it at settlement," Conors said. " ... It was the right house in the right school district and we all picked out our rooms and arranged furniture in our minds."
It was later that Conors learned that she was buying into a social experiment launched in 1967 by developer James W. Rouse. Columbia mixed single-family and multifamily housing styles to attract a diverse population. The town had a host of strict architectural covenants and recreational amenities.
The Columbia Association participates in the Sister Cities exchange program, even though Columbia isn't officially a city. The association even ran a bus service for a while.
Residents pay a property lien, which seems like a property tax to just about everyone but the Internal Revenue Service, which does not allow it to be deducted from income taxes. Residents elect representatives to the Columbia Council and their respective village boards. But rules concerning who can vote vary from village to village.
Conors recalled a recent conversation with a woman who complained that representation on the Columbia Council is not fair, since each village elects one council member, regardless of the size of the village.
"She said, 'What kind of a democracy is this?'" Conors recalled. "This isn't government. It's a private corporation. ... Why are you looking for democracy out of a private corporation?"