Group pushes lakes plan

The Baltimore Sun

About half the crowd at a Columbia Association budget session came to support a citizens group's proposal for a Columbiawide watershed management program that would make the town's lakes healthier and more attractive.

Members of the Committee for Lake Elkhorn's Environmental Restoration (CLEER) showed up in force to make sure they were heard.

Group founder Elaine Pardoe said at the meeting Monday night that the plan would provide long-needed restoration of Owen Brown's recreational lake, after a planned dredging.

"For 18 years, we have seen evidence that the lake is not managed to protect the environment," said Pardoe, whose house overlooks the lake. "How can private property owners be expected to do the right thing if the high-profile lakeside habitats are not a poster child for what can be done?"

The session was an open discussion of projects for the 2009 and 2010 Columbia Association budgets, which are to be drafted by the end of December. In the past, the association's board of directors has approved most suggested projects, members said.

Lake Elkhorn and Lake Kittamaqundi in Town Center were approved for a long-sought dredging in April, though no date has been set for work to begin. The dredging will remove sediment that accumulated from eroding streams that feed into the lakes. Lake Elkhorn is so shallow in places that birds can stand in the middle of the lake with their feet touching the bottom, Pardoe said. The sediments also carry nutrients that provide nourishment for algae to multiply in the lakes.

But Pardoe and environmental analysts say dredging, which will cost an estimated $11 million, is not enough to avoid repeating the costly operation in the near future. For the project to be effective, developers and homeowners across Howard County would need to preserve vegetation on their property and create landscapes that absorb storm water and reduce the amount of fertilizer entering the watershed, said Paul Sturm, a program manager at the Center for Watershed Protection in Ellicott City.

Pardoe requested funding for a watershed restoration plan and a paid association staff member to oversee it in cooperation with county and state agencies. The association's vice president of open-space management, Chick Rhodehamel, said he supported a similar plan years ago as the high cost of dredging Columbia's lakes became apparent.

The association's external relations committee voted Thursday to create a resident advisory committee for the villages to provide input about a new watershed management plan. The association will present its version of a plan at the committee's Oct. 4 meeting.

"I feel stronger about this than anything else," Rhodehamel said. "A watershed plan in FY '09 will have community support because [CLEER] did all the leg work."

CLEER estimates the plan would cost about $14,000, but group members acknowledge that it is an estimate.

Other suggestions at the meeting included a proposal by Ann Coren of Owen Brown that the association do more to make its buildings energy efficient.

Most buildings have switched to energy-saving light bulbs and more efficient appliances, but Rhodehamel said major modifications on many of the older structures would be too costly.

A projected budget for the next 10 years presented by Alliance for a Better Columbia President Alex Hekimian suggested the association is overspending and taking out too many loans.

"We're pretty far off what's considered best financial management," said Hekimian, a retired transportation planner for Montgomery County. "The problem is not income. Income is growing. The problem is expenses, capital expenditures."

But Budget Committee Chairman James Howard of Long Reach said Hekimian's presentation used selective data. Howard said the association's debt is nothing to worry about.

"Wall Street says this is fine," Howard said. "As long as we have money to pay for it, who cares what [the association's] debt is."

After Life Time Fitness opened a 24-hour gym off Robert Fulton Drive in February 2006, the association increased efforts to maintain membership at its facilities. About 38 percent of the association's approximate $62 million budget in 2008 is supported from membership fees to the facilities, said Steve Sattler, the association's spokesman. Those facilities include 23 outdoor pools, three gyms, two golf clubs, tennis courts and an ice rink.

"So far we've been holding our own," said CA President Maggie J. Brown. "Steps have included offering two-year memberships, which are just starting to come up for renewal. At the end of the year, we will know how we're doing overall."

Dorothy Friedman of Owen Brown called for the association's volunteer board members to be paid, and to get more staff support. The association has staff members who serve the board members, but Friedman said additional staff would allow the board to objectively evaluate the association's activities.

"You have enough money that I'm concerned where it's going. When studies are done and then thrown out the window, that's a concern," Friedman said. "After 40 years, the budget is significant, and it's time for a change."

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