Oakland Mills residents voiced concerns about crime, shuttered stores and subsidized housing at a town meeting last night attended by more than 120 people.
While village leaders and county officials assured residents that Oakland Mills is a relatively safe, strong community, its challenges were plain to see.
The meeting took place in The Other Barn, a community building with a vacant supermarket on one side and a demolished gas station and a closed convenience store on the other.
A group of teen-agers loitered in the village center courtyard as the meeting began - something residents pointed out as Howard County Police Chief Wayne Livesay addressed the group. Two officers attending the meeting with Livesay stepped out to take a look, prompting applause from the group.
"Bring 'em in," someone shouted from the back.
Oakland Mills village officials called the meeting to address public concerns about crime and retail failures in the village center. The Metro Food Market closed its store last month after three years.
Residents said they were most worried about loitering teens, who they said hang out at the village center and wander into neighboring residential areas.
An emergency room nurse said she once came home from work at midnight to find the road blocked by 17 teens who refused to let her pass. Another resident, Lynette M. Locke, said teens congregate on the village center sidewalks and intentionally keep shoppers from passing.
Out of that discussion came a suggestion that shows how much Columbia has changed since developer James W. Rouse designed the village centers as places for neighborhood socializing.
When Livesay explained that it is difficult for police to distinguish between moms and dads chatting over shopping carts and people who are truly loitering, Cheryl Baal, property manager at Dorsey's Forge Apartments, suggested setting a time limit for village center banter.
She suggested a 20-minute limit.
Livesay told the group that crime in the village of 9,700 had remained more or less constant in recent years. By working with property managers at Oakland Mills apartment and condominium complexes, he said, the department has been able to ban dozens of people for drug, alcohol and other "quality of life violations."
The chief said that in 1999 just less than 1,400 criminal violations occurred in the village, and about the same number last year.
Livesay also said he would look into establishing a police satellite office in the village center, though not a full police substation. He stressed that he could make no promises.
David Hutchinson, who has lived in Columbia since 1971, attributed the problem to transient renters, including those in subsidized apartments near the village center.
"I don't know where this came from, but it sure snuck in on a lot of us who have been here many years," he said.
His comment angered some, including Locke, who lives in subsidized housing.
"Everyone's not like that," she said. "There's some bad seeds in the pod."
Village Board Chairman David Hatch opened the meeting with an update on efforts to find a new supermarket.
He said village officials recently met with Metro, which has a 20-year lease on the 40,000-square-foot building. Hatch said Metro would prefer to sublet the space to another supermarket instead of some other retailer, because the company then could save the expense of removing the fixtures in the store.
Village officials want to have a supermarket in the space, but officials with the Rouse Co., which owns the village center, have said they doubt that another supermarket company would be interested in the out-of-the-way location.
Hatch said village officials are in a difficult position because they do not have legal authority to sign tenants or show the rental space to potential renters. But that has not stopped them from trying to recruit businesses, contacting grocery chains directly and urging them to consider opening an outlet in Oakland Mills.
"Our power is only the power to persuade," Hatch said.