Columbia tower bills a source of differences

The Baltimore Sun

As candidates last year, some County Council members said the proposed 275-foot Plaza Residence tower on Columbia's lakefront would be too tall. Does that mean that next month they must vote for Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty's two bills that could block it?

Alan Klein, spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, made that argument last week at the council's public hearings, but Sigaty's colleagues reject it.

"Why should you vote in favor of these bills?" Klein testified. "The simple answer is that you said you would. Three of you, along with both major candidates for county executive and many of the candidates who were not elected, announced your support for height limits in Columbia that would include the proposed Plaza Tower."

Klein added later that although the bills in question did not exist during the campaign, he believes that a council majority of three members -- Sigaty, Courtney Watson and Jen Terrasa, all Democrats -- obligated themselves to do something to block the tower. And if her colleagues disagree with Sigaty's bills, they've had nearly 10 months in office to produce an alternative, he said.

One Sigaty bill imposes a temporary, 150-foot height limit in Columbia. The other allows new regulations to affect projects already under way, if they are under appeal.

Not so fast, said Watson and Terrasa.

They said that they may oppose the height of the building, but that doesn't mean they must support Sigaty's bills.

Watson, who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge, agreed that she said the tower is much too tall and out of human scale, but pointed to her next comment, which was: "I am not certain, however, whether the county now has the legal standing to halt the construction of the building."

Building permits have been issued, and work is under way.

"I don't think what I said in the campaign is inconsistent with any position I end up taking," Watson said.

Terrasa, whose district covers the southeastern county, also agreed the tower would be too high, would be out of character with the rest of Columbia and should have been part of the planning process for redevelopment of the entire downtown area, Klein said.

"I don't think it's inconsistent with voting either way on this legislation," Terrasa said. "I don't think any of us promised to vote [one way] on this legislation."

"That doesn't change my opinion about the tower, or the charrette," she added about the weeklong planning meetings held two years ago.

Some witnesses at the hearings called for another attempt at a compromise, but none is yet on the horizon.

The council vote is scheduled for Oct. 1.

Bobo's picnic

Columbia Del. Elizabeth Bobo suggested that her annual fundraising picnic at Cedar Lane Park last week was perhaps as important for the nature and meaning of the event itself as for the nearly hourlong stretch of speeches on issues.

"I've been a big-time advocate of 'real' campaign finance reform," she said as the crowd of about 300 people chatted and ate hot dogs on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Admission was free, though donations were gratefully accepted.

Bobo, a Democrat and former county executive who is serving her fourth term in the House of Delegates, said her 14 annual picnics represent her attempt to practice what she preaches -- elected office financed by small donations from community supporters, not by big-ticket events paid for by special-interest lobbyists.

To be sure, Bobo is blessed with an unusual single-member district (12B) that covers the west Columbia neighborhoods that are home to loads of astute, like-minded voters. Her advocacy for a range of issues from environmental reform to a paper trail for voting attracts supporters from throughout Howard County and beyond.

"I've had one [formal] fundraiser in 14 years. It is a great district," she said, adding that the $9,000 or so she clears from the donations each year have been more than enough to keep winning.

Bobo said the picnic is a low-budget affair, staffed by 25 volunteers, with the choice of food limited to hot dogs and drinks.

Guests Sunday included state Comptroller Peter Franchot, who credits Bobo's support for him last year as an important factor in his victory, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, County Executive Ken Ulman, District 12 Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, Del. Guy Guzzone and three County Council members. Two former county executives also attended -- Edward L. Cochran (1974-1978) and William E. "Ned" Eakle, a former chief administrative officer who served briefly as executive in 1986.

"You realize she's involved in a movement, not a campaign, to carry out core values so that everyone can live the best life that they can," Cummings told the crowd.

The Brown contract

After a protracted internal argument among members of the Columbia Association board of directors this year over how long President Maggie J. Brown should remain under a new contract, she was offered and signed what is supposed to be a final, two-year deal to lead the huge homeowners' association until May 2009.

The final vote was 9-1, with Owen Brown board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, furious about the termination clause, the lone "nay" vote.

Atkinson-Stewart hasn't given up, though. Included in the latest village newsletter, the Owen Brown Observer, is a plug advocating more time for Brown.

"The CA President is required to live in Columbia, and if we are going to remove Maggie Brown in a year, be prepared with someone asking up to $300,000 to relocate here. It's cheaper to keep her!!" Atkinson-Stewart wrote in her "News and Notes from Pearl" article.

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