Devotees of James W. Rouse, the urban planner who spearheaded the founding of Columbia more than 40 years ago, can be prickly about change, especially if they fear it might compromise the legendary founder's ideas.
But if testimony at a public hearing last week is any indication, the planned community's residents are receptive to a proposed amendment that would alter the process by which village centers - linchpins of the town Rouse conceived and designed - can be modernized.
"No one really seems to oppose [redevelopment] of the village centers," said Cynthia Coyle, a member of the Columbia Association's board of directors. "They just want to make sure it's done intelligently and that people in Columbia have a real say."
At stake at a county Planning Board public hearing Thursday night was Zoning Regulation Amendment 102, a measure that would do away with a peculiar wrinkle in zoning law that has helped shape Columbia since its founding.
The so-called "gatekeeper provision" says that only Columbia's main developer can officially petition for zoning changes within the city limits - an area Howard County also calls the New Town district.
Since then, individuals or businesses seeking changes in Columbia's zoning regulations have had to go through the Rouse Co. - or, more recently, through General Growth Properties Inc., the mall company that bought Rouse out in 2004 and owns much of Columbia.
"[The gatekeeper rule] made sense in those days," says Robert Tennenbaum, Columbia's original chief architect, who still lives there and participates in its civic affairs. "The Rouse Co. wanted to be able to influence what builders and developers could do" as Columbia grew and prospered, he says.
For years, the provision seemed to strike residents as an acceptable compromise. A larger entity with a stake in Columbia's success could monitor and control growth, ensuring that new businesses would conform with Rouse's vision of a community that was thriving and livable.
The gatekeeper provision seemed especially apt for Columbia, which Rouse saw as a city that might ultimately grow large, but that should always retain a small-town feel. To that end, he helped create 10 villages within Columbia, each of which would have a village center - a gathering place that would feature a grocery store and other essential shops, public schools, recreational facilities and other amenities, all within walking distance of most residents.
"People moved to Columbia expecting" that kind of intimacy within villages, says Mary Pivar, a member of the board governing Wilde Lake village.
But a changing economic landscape has taken its toll on the village centers. The introduction of big-box stores in Columbia - such as a Costco on Route 175 and a planned 160,000-square-foot Wegmans supermarket - has drawn away customers.
In Wilde Lake Village alone, a small Giant supermarket closed in 2006. And this year, Produce Galore and Great Clips, a hair salon, shut their doors.
The sea changes have sparked a reassessment of how village centers should be designed and run - not to mention a debate about trade-offs between commercial interests and many Columbians' lingering desire to retain that "mom-and-pop" feel.
One catalyst behind ZRA 102 was a decision this year by Kimco Realty - the real estate investment trust that owns six of the village centers - to explore the possibility of razing much of Wilde Lake village and building 50,000 square feet of retail space and 500 apartments.
Kimco's proposal, pitched in March, has sparked controversy.
"It's totally ridiculous," says Tennenbaum. "There is no need for 500 residences, other than to serve the financial interests of Kimco."
Geoffrey Glazer, Kimco's vice president of development, has countered that the old model of village centers is an economic albatross. "It is a very difficult layout to get retailers to want to come to it," he said at a hearing this summer.
To that end, Kimco drafted the measure under discussion at Thursday night's meeting.
"Existing regulations do not permit redevelopment of the village centers to respond to changing conditions," reads the amendment. "The proposed regulation amendments will allow for the evolution of the village centers in a fashion that encourages reinvestment and stabilizes the existing [ones]."
Speaking for the Wilde Lake Business Trust, the entity formally introducing the petition, attorney G. Scott Barhight portrayed the measure as a simple attempt by business owners in Columbia to assert their constitutionally guaranteed right to redress the government.
"Until now," he said, "we have been prohibited from even posing the question."
Representatives of various villages took turns at the podium Thursday night, telling the county's Planning Board how they felt ZRA 102 should be changed before it is enacted. The proposal asks that property owners in any village center be allowed to ask for "any use or density" on their property.
Village spokesmen felt that was overreaching.
Speaking for the Oakland Mills Community Association, Karen Gray said the county should include language that ensures that any new petition conform to the needs of the village and Columbia. "It's not quite ready to be approved in its current form," she said. "But this measure reflects the changing nature of Columbia. A lot of the groundwork has been laid."