Redistricting proposal to shift federal agency raises eyebrows in Woodlawn

Election precinct 1-001 in Woodlawn hardly registers a second glance on a map of Baltimore County Council districts, clustered among some 200 others.

But since it is home to one of the county's largest employers — the Social Security Administration headquarters — a recommendation to move the precinct to another district has raised the stakes in what was expected to be a ho-hum redistricting plan.

The agency has thousands of workers and even more in contractors and subcontractors. The area is primed for even more business now that prospective employers can take advantage of state and local tax breaks.

Even though the redistricting plan does not mean that anything is physically changing — regardless of the council district, the agency will remain in Woodlawn — there's concern that any economic benefit will be seen as a boon to neighboring Catonsville. Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Democrat who represents most of Woodlawn, has been joined by his appointee to the redistricting commission in criticizing the plan.

When it comes to redistricting, residents generally frown on unwanted shifts in representation when boundary lines are redrawn every 10 years, particularly when they appear to threaten revitalization efforts.

To some, these are just imaginary lines on a map. To others, you might as well plop their community on another planet.

"We're struggling as it is to revitalize Woodlawn," said Aaron Barnett, a member of the Security Woodlawn Business Association and community activist. "The economic enterprise zone was a major component of our work. To take that away from us and put us in another district, I don't think is fair to the Woodlawn community. We were the third-largest district; now we're being reduced to one of the smallest."

Actually, District 4, the predominantly African-American district that houses the agency, would become the smallest council district under the commission's plan, which has raised eyebrows.

"The numbers just don't jibe," said Ralph Wright, appointed by Oliver to the commission. He worries that the change could dilute minority voter strength. "Common sense didn't prevail, in my opinion. It seems to me they were channeling that effort to break up the district in as much as they wanted that Woodlawn district to move over to" District 1.

A counterproposal offered by Oliver, who has represented the district for two terms, would keep both districts around the same size with fewer than 500 residents separating them.

In the past decade, District 4 saw the most growth, ending up with more than 117,000 residents. District 1, its neighbor to the south, had 108,360 residents. The ideal district size, as determined by the commission, would be about 115,290.

Oliver recommended moving the Featherbed Lane precinct and its roughly 4,130 residents into first-term Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk's District 1.

Instead, the commission recommended moving the larger Woodlawn High School precinct, which has almost 6,260 residents, creating a difference of more than 3,800 residents. On the redistricting map, neither precinct seems to offer a clear advantage in making the district less sprawling.

The new map would take effect in 2014.

Earlier this year, county officials announced plans to create a tax-friendly enterprise zone to draw more jobs and investment near Interstate 695 and Dogwood Road. As envisioned, the Federal Center at Woodlawn would include 230 acres of industrial- and commercial-zoned land. Companies could get income tax credits for hiring new employees and 10-year property tax credits for improvements.

"It's a significant economic driver and magnet," said Dan Gundersen, economic development director. "For that reason, it's become one of the county executive's top priorities for economic development — the continued presence of that workforce and trying to create much more of a headquarters environment."

Oliver has been outspoken about the threat to his district's future economic viability ever since the plan was announced a few weeks ago.

Quirk "is taking away my economic development," Oliver said. "I'm getting a double whammy."

Wright said he believes the panel is violating the mandate that changes be "compact, contiguous and … kept districts around the same size."

But commission chairman Ed Crizer, while noting Wright's objections, said in a recent memo to County Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. that the change is within the permissible size range and "makes the most sense geographically."

Barnett said he doesn't understand how the change will benefit Woodlawn.

"What are the motivating factors behind it?" he said. "I don't think that moving us to the Catonsville district will help us at all."

However, State Sen. Delores Kelley, whose district includes parts of Woodlawn, said she supports the shift for economic and political reasons.

"Quirk is a businessman in the district and really has great ideas for working with the community, government and business. I don't think we will lose in that regard," Kelley said. "The advantage I see is making [District 1] more Democratic. To put that precinct into the 1st District would actually make sure for us that we would get a good general outcome for Democrats."

Quirk said the commission's recommendation also increases the likelihood that another African-American could be elected to the council. The Liberty Road business corridor will help strengthen the 4th District from an economic standpoint, he said, adding that the district might be the smallest for now, but probably won't stay that way.

"Everyone expects that is where a lot of the growth would be happening," Quirk said. "When you look at District 1, it looks like a piece of the puzzle is missing. Adding 1-001 makes it look like the district is now complete."

Other local business owners said they don't anticipate any bad effect from what they view primarily as a shift in representation.

Meanwhile, John McPhaul, a member of the Liberty Road Business Association who lives in the Woodlawn High precinct, said he and others are working on a strategy to prevent the change. "It would take too much away from our 4th District."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly included the Centers on Medicare and Medicaid in the redistricting plan. The Sun regrets the error.

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