Two members of the Howard County Council have stepped into the middle of an intense debate about plans to build a 24-hour crisis center in Howard County with a goal of achieving general agreement on a site.
The center has been looking for a new home for more than two years, with neighborhood protests blocking every prospective location.
County Councilmen Guy Guzzone and Ken Ulman have won a $20,000 grant from the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office to hire a facilitator to work with the groups concerned about the crisis center plans. Their hope is to find a workable solution for everyone involved.
"I just believe there's a solution that makes sense out there, and it doesn't have to elicit outcries in the neighborhood that may be justified, may not be," Ulman said.
A coalition of three local crisis-assistance programs - the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, Domestic Violence Center and STTAR Center, which helps victims of sexual abuse - has been embroiled in a battle with community members about proposed locations for a new facility.
Proposed sites for a shared facility in Long Reach, Kings Contrivance and Ellicott City, near the Maryland School for the Deaf, have been met with stiff opposition from residents who feared that the proximity to schools would jeopardize students, increase crime and lower property values.
A later proposal to expand Grassroots at its current location was met with resistance from the Harriet Tubman High School alumni association.
"We thought it would be a good idea to jumpstart the process [by] bringing in a professional facilitator," said Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who is a former Grassroots board member.
"I am thinking of this less as a mediation and more of a facilitation," said council Chairman Guzzone, a Democrat who represents North Laurel and Savage. "The key is ... an open and public discussion."
Ulman envisions a two-step process in which the mediator would first work with the coalition groups and then meet with the coalition and the people in the community, including Columbia village boards and the Tubman association, to create an open process.
Howard Lyles, chairman of the Harriet Tubman alumni association, said that he had not been contacted about the proposed mediation but that he and his group would be willing to take part.
Lyles said his group's opposition is not based on the service that Grassroots provides, but on using space adjacent to the Harriet Tubman High School facility.
Guzzone said a location may be somewhere that no one had considered before. "We have a clean slate," he said. "Before, they were looking at residential locations that may not be the case; they may be in a business area; they may need to be centrally located in the county, we don't know yet."
The mediation is scheduled to last until September but could take longer.
Ulman said it was important that the County Council obtained the grant rather than the coalition. "We thought coming from the County Council would be recognition that County Council members support the concept. To the folks in the Tubman association and folks in the village boards, this is us taking the lead," he said.
The councilmen applied for the facilitator grant jointly with the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center at Howard Community College and plan to work with the HCC center to find a facilitator.
County Executive James N. Robey said yesterday that he supports the councilmen's initiative. "I met with folks yesterday," he said, in his continuing attempt to solve the problem of where to put a new combined crisis center.
Sun reporters Liz Kay and Larry Carson contributed to this article.