The Baltimore Sun

Grocery stores are key

While the Department of Planning and Zoning deliberates ZRA 102, which deals with future development in Columbia's village centers, I want you to know of my firsthand observations of the importance of a grocery store in each village center. As you may know, several of the Columbia Housing Corp.'s affordable-housing properties are located in the Village of Wilde Lake. During the more than two years since the Wilde Lake Giant closed, I have observed severe hardship on the part of our low-income families due to the lack of a nearby grocery store. Many residents either cannot drive or don't own a car, and many find it difficult to walk for various reasons the long distance to the nearest grocery store that is located in Harper's Farm Village.

The petitioner for ZRA 102 included in its original application the importance of responsible citizen input as it relates to the changing social, economic and market conditions facing each village center. In these uncertain economic times, it is even more important that each village contain the basic features available in all the others, and that includes a grocery store.

As the economy fluctuates, many more of us may need to walk rather than drive to our local grocery store. Why should Wilde Lake be the only village that does not have this convenience?

Carole MacPhee, Columbia

The writer is the former executive director of the Columbia Housing Corp.

Cut CA expenditures

The Alliance for a Better Columbia strongly urges the Columbia Association board to overhaul the CA budget for fiscal year 2010 (which begins on May 1, 2009) with the objective of curbing the planned growth in operating and capital expenditures, which has consistently exceeded increases in CA's income over the course of the past several years.

At a time when the precarious and highly uncertain condition of the national economy has forced state and local governments to cut waste and eliminate nonessential expenditures, CA's overseers should cut planned expenditures with the goal of reducing the assessment rate by 5 percent from 68 cents to 65 cents without adversely affecting the projected budget balance.

ABC believes that such a modest reduction could be achieved without compromising the quality of services and facilities provided by CA if the board makes a serious attempt to eliminate wasteful spending.

Joel Yesley, Columbia

Bill perils political speech

If Howard County Democrats succeed in passing a bill (Ho. Co. 9-09) to prohibit advertising in state highways, such legislation will unconstitutionally threaten political speech, including political sign waving. A general, uncompromising ban on all advertising activities does little to serve Howard County's interests in traffic safety, aesthetics, or any other motivation behind the proposal.

The bill, proposed by the Howard County delegation in the Maryland General Assembly, would prohibit standing in a state highway to solicit money or donations or to advertise.

Banning advertising on state highways, including political sign waving, likely violates the free-speech clause of the First Amendment. As public forums, our streets have been entitled to special protection in constitutional history. In the famous words of late Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, "The streets are natural and proper places for the dissemination of information and opinion."

Some may argue this bill is an appropriate constitutional restriction on speech because candidates can advertise in other forms, such as individual property signs, bumper stickers and leaflets. However, the law demands that restrictions on speech leave ample substitute methods of communication. Sign waving is a common and consistent method of political campaigning in Howard County, and citizens likely view these signs more often precisely because of their location on state highways. Signs in quiet neighborhoods or side streets lack exposure to a similarly wide audience. Further, for those candidates or political organizations with fewer resources, sign waving on state highways may have no realistic substitute that would reach the same number of residents.

But forget about the Constitution - the bill could be considered unfair and majoritarian. If Republican candidates wave signs significantly more often than Democrats, as some may argue is the case, this bill could be viewed as a veiled attempt by Howard's Democratic delegates to eliminate sign waving for its party's advantage.

In a county and state where Republicans are historically the minority in terms of registered voters and elected officials, this suggestion should merit serious consideration. Even the appearance of an impermissible motive behind the bill could cost the state credibility in the eyes of the public and lessen our citizens' faith in institutions of government.

In a county rife with bumper stickers asking its residents to "Choose Civility," it is essential to preserve the nature of our civil society by safeguarding residents' constitutional right to free speech on state highways.

Tara Benedetti, Columbia

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