Seven months since the possible sale of Merriweather Post Pavilion was announced, the issue over the amphitheater and land around it might be reaching a turning point.
A citizens panel investigating whether the county should buy the venue is poised to make its recommendation by next month. And as soon as next week, the Howard County Planning Board might vote on a bitterly contested proposal by General Growth Properties to develop the land surrounding Merriweather.
But just as the issue is reaching a peak, the number of residents attending the meetings has dwindled from about 100 to mere handfuls. Many say they still care passionately about the fate of Merriweather but have given up participating in the confusing and drawn-out process.
"We went through something similar last year," said Town Center village Chairman Lee Richardson, referring to another proposal by developers to build residences on the land around Merriweather. "But this time around, it's so much more complicated. A lot of people stopped going right at the beginning."
Last year, the battle over the proposal for residential units essentially took place in front of one body - the county Zoning Board. This time around, the fate of Merriweather and the land around it is tied up in three arenas: the Planning Board, a citizens panel appointed by County Executive James N. Robey, and the County Council, which is considering revision of Columbia's zoning rules.
The division has multiplied the number of meetings and complicated the debate. Even as the panel and Planning Board prepare their decisions, many residents and some of the decision-makers are still trying to figure out what the results ultimately will mean.
The most heated arguments have taken place in Planning Board meetings about a General Growth proposal to build office and retail buildings on 51.7 acres of undeveloped land in the heart of downtown Columbia.
As the last significant undeveloped land in Town Center, the area - called the crescent property - could set the direction of Columbia's downtown for years to come, say residents and officials. General Growth acquired the crescent property and Merriweather in November when it bought the Rouse Co., which built Columbia.
The Planning Board is deciding whether to pass a comprehensive sketch plan for the development.
The vote is crucial, said county planning supervisor Harold T. Bernadzikowski, because once the sketch plan is approved, General Growth can proceed as long as its subsequent planning abides by the sketch plan.
In the past, the Planning Board has rarely rejected a proposal by the former Rouse Co. Although county planning staff could not say for certain that it has never happened, they could not recall any rejected proposal in recent years.
Most sketch plans are discussed and approved by the Planning Board in a night, but the crescent property issue has continued since October. The company and residents have presented the bulk of their cases, and the board will meet Jan. 26 to hear closing arguments.
But even if the proposal passes, office and retail might not ultimately be what is built on the property.
"The presumption is that office and retail is not really what they want to build," said Randall Griffin, chairman of the citizens panel. "The property is three times as valuable if it's developed as residential."
General Growth representatives declined to comment on their ultimate goals for the property. But officials are pursuing an appeal in county Circuit Court that, if won, might allow them to build residential units on the property.
Meanwhile, the possible sale of Merriweather to the county is being handled separately by the citizens panel.
The Planning Board has emphasized the separation of the two issues by banning any talk of Merriweather at the crescent property hearings. But many in the community believe the two issues are intertwined.
Concertgoers at Merriweather park on the crescent property. Once it is developed, the amphitheater could face a severe shortage of parking. And the citizens panel has said that the county should not buy Merriweather without first resolving the potential parking problem.
Complicating matters is General Growth insisting it will sell Merriweather only to a buyer who will turn the outdoor amphitheater into a smaller indoor venue.
The citizens panel, however, has said the opposite: that the county should buy Merriweather only if it remains an outdoor venue, because according to the panel, that is the only way it can be profitable.
The Rouse Co. way
When the Rouse Co. existed, its top executives had hinted they might be flexible on the indoor/outdoor issue, said panel chairman Griffin. Since the sale, however, General Growth's top executives in Chicago "have been remarkably absent from this," he said.
At a recent meeting, Griffin urged the company to break its silence.
"So far, there's been no dialogue. ... It's been: This is our demand, you react to it," he said. "This is an opportunity to find a win-win situation, but they [General Growth] need to come to the table for discussion."
Dennis Miller, general manager of Columbia for General Growth, declined to comment on Griffin's remarks, on the court appeal or other details concerning Merriweather. "All those questions are related to things in progress," he said.
The citizens panel plans to meet early next month and to make its recommendation to Robey by the end of February. Panel members are waiting to review a consultant's study on operating costs and the amount of rent the county could charge if it bought the pavilion.
One new idea that has emerged is to hold off all action until a "master plan" has been drafted for downtown Columbia. In a rare consensus on a single issue, Columbia's 10 village boards have united to argue for the master-plan approach.
The Columbia Association, which has no authority over either issue, has volunteered to lead the effort to draft a master plan through an intense summit, called a charrette, which would be held over seven consecutive days. But General Growth, which would be a main player in such an effort, has not said if it would participate.
The County Council also might endorse the master-plan approach through legislation. The council, which also acts as county Zoning Board, has held public hearings to discuss revising rules, called New Town Zoning, which govern development in Columbia. By revising New Town Zoning, the county could influence what can be built on the crescent property.
"The public has expressed a clear desire to see downtown developed comprehensively rather than piecemeal, one parcel at a time," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat and chairman of the Zoning Board.
Even if the Planning Board approves the crescent property proposal by General Growth, Ulman believes the County Council will have ample time to weigh in on the issue.
"A project like this has multiple steps," he said. "I don't believe the result of the Planning Board case will affect our desire and plans to move forward to require a master plan."
The council will discuss revising New Town Zoning rules in a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
Residents and local leaders say they do not know what effect the revision of New Town Zoning might have on the Merriweather issue. But they know one thing: It will mean more meetings.
For the past a year and half, Columbia resident Ian Kennedy said, he has given up watching television, reading books and has even neglected his dog at times in favor of meetings on Merriweather and the crescent property.
"It's not glamorous or exciting," said Kennedy, co-founder of the advocacy group Save Merriweather. "And a lot of the legal stuff is confusing, but as a resident you just know what you know - that this is going to affect your life. So you go."