Columbia is different. I believe that to my core. This is community that values and practices growth of individuals. That being said, our electoral process is somewhat less than desired. Last week almost all of the Columbia Council Representative and Village Board contests were decided (and remember Long Reach, you still have a chance to vote this Saturday!). As much as we all desire a spirited discussion of policies and positions among the candidates (and yes, we did see that to a certain extent), more than one village election was marred by whisper conspiracies and a good bit of mudslinging.
To an extent, I believe the reason why village elections are so vicious regardless of our lofty ideals, is because the differences are so small. As an example, one of the purported campaign issues this year was Symphony Woods Park. As it turns out, all candidates are in favor of a park in Symphony Woods. This was not a debate between a park and a cement plant. For this reason, some folks engaged in highly speculative, negative and imagined positions of one candidate to energize what they perceived were the base of the candidate they supported. In addition, given the lack of impropriety of the candidates running, an appearance of impropriety was invented. It is this kind of behavior that brings down Columbia and until candidates openly refute these tactics and disassociate themselves from those that choose to do it, we will continue to inhibit growth and enrichment of Columbia.
In the short term, it is now very important to focus on all those that chose to put their hat in the ring. For those newly elected, they are about to find out the legal and regulatory structure that surrounds the Columbia Association and the Village Boards. Give them your patience. For those re-elected, this is a time for them to stretch their skill set and take on new tasks. Give them your encouragement.
For those not elected, they need you most of all. In the past few weeks, they have been subjected to accusations that no one would ever think of prior to their declared candidacy. I have been there. The feeling of loss is expected, but what is really jarring is trying to integrate back into the community. There is a pariah effect. Do people in the neighborhood really believe those things that were said? I ask both supporters and especially those that did not vote for them to let them know you are proud of them. Write a thank you note or send an email of appreciation. Remind them that it takes a certain amount of courage to run for office, and that kind of courage is welcome in your neighborhood. Find some aspect of their candidacy that you agreed with, and let them know that you can work together on the subject.
In closing, please consider that voting in village elections is a critical part of being a community, but it remains only a small segment of being a community. If you value your neighbors, if you value growing, reaching, evolving, then let’s do the good work of being a real community.
I have to figure most that read this blog have a pretty well versed in the spirit and general nature of this community. For a quick review: Columbia, Maryland was established to be “a better city.” At the outset, this master planned community was predicated on people of all races, religions, economic status and ages living well together. At that time, the town was designed for people of different backgrounds and cultures to live in close proximity. This was supposed to allow for growth and appreciation of neighbors. In the early years, self-selecting residents populated the town with this in mind. I think most in this town would consider this arrangement a success…until now.
Recently, two long-tenured Columbians wrote letters to the editor about Symphony Woods. Now I know that there have been quite a few letters about the park downtown, but these letters in particular stuck out for their underlying logic.
One letter reserved the anti-Columbian theme for the closing paragraph (CA has 'no business' serving others with Columbia homeowners' money
But the real question is, why is CA, a homeowners association, going to develop a "world-class cultural and arts space"? CA was originally called the Columbia Parks and Recreation Association (CPRA). They changed their name, but their original mission to serve their residents remains. They have no business serving others with our monies.
Columbia Association's proposal to develop a Symphony Woods "Arts District" as a regional attraction goes far beyond the association's legitimate scope of interest as a homeowners association. CA's charter states that it is the purpose of CA, "To organize and operate a civic organization … which shall be organized and operated exclusively for the promotion of the common good and social welfare of the people of the community of Columbia and its environs." Drawing in people from other counties fails the "exclusively" test.
This current proposal would put CA's residents' property (i.e. Symphony Woods) — and their assessment payments — to the regular service of patrons spanning a widespread geographic area, not just Columbians— not even only Howard County residents. I question whether this is a proper use of CA assessment payer resources.
In each case, the author raises a questions the validity of the arts district concept. Each author then attempts to tie this question to the fact that the State of Maryland considers the Columbia Association a homeowners association. Raising these two items then leads each reader to the conclusion that amenities within Columbia should be funded for the exclusive use of lien payers.
Read that again. In the community that celebrates diversity, exclusivity is the standard for these residents that have benefited from decades of living here. This point is both breathtaking and disturbing at once. It is an affront to what Columbia is and how Columbians live.
Beyond the spirit of Columbia discussion, the logic behind the exclusivity argument. Simply put, the logic is flawed, and so we come to a teachable moment (probably the best of outcomes).
It is true that the State of Maryland considers the Columbia Association a Homeowners Association. However, the Columbia Association predates the Homeowners Association Act by about two decades. When quoting the Columbia Association Charter, it is crucial to consider the time the Charter was written. In the late 1960’s, Columbia’s purpose as stated in its Charter did not seek to conform to State statute, other than that as a non-profit, non-stock corporation. The aim was to secure status as a non-profit “Social Welfare” organization under IRS Tax Code. This is evident by a comparison of the stated purpose of the Columbia Association:
"To organize and operate a civic organization … which shall be organized and operated exclusively for the promotion of the common good and social welfare of the people of the community of Columbia and its environs."
(2) Promotion of social welfare—(i) In general. An organization is operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare if it is primarily engaged in promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.
Another interesting aspect of the 501(c)(4) tax code designation; corporations that carry this designation cannot limit their facilities to a particular membership. In fact, their facilities and common areas must be made available to the general public. Because the terms “social welfare” and “community” are difficult to define, the IRS published an extensive report on the subject (“Social Welfare: What Does It Mean? How Much Private Benefit Is Permissible? What Is A Community?”
) in 1981. The following passage is taken directly from the report:
Following its unsuccessful efforts, to clarify this problem the Service published Rev. Rul. 74-99, 1974-1, C.B. 131, to modify Rev. Rul. 72-102. This new ruling provided that a homeowners' association, to qualify for exemption under section 501(c)(4), (1) must serve a "community" which bears a reasonably recognizable relationship to an area ordinarily identified as governmental; (2) must not conduct activities directed to the exterior maintenance of private residences, and (3) the common areas or facilities it owns and maintains must be for the use and enjoyment of the general public. The ruling indicates that an association of homeowners that enforces covenants and owns and maintains common areas and streets is presumed to be organized and operated primarily for the benefit of its members, unless it overcomes this "prima facie" presumption by satisfying the three preceding elements.
In addition, the following bit of guidance may also be helpful to those that believe geography dominates the actions of the Columbia Association:
Size of membership in ratio to local population is not controlling on whether an organization is "civic" or "social." The number affected is not the criterion. A private project may touch an appreciable segment of the people or a large physical area and yet, for want of of the considerations mentioned, not be converted into a civic or social undertaking. Classification as "civic" or "social" depends upon the character - as public or private - of the benefits bestowed, of the beneficiary, and of the benefactor.
And in case anyone was wondering if the IRS has changed its stance on Social Welfare since 1981 (heck, I did), here is an excerpt from their current page on 501(c)(4) organizations
(scroll down to Jeopardizing Exemption).
In summary, the Columbia Association was created two decades before the Maryland Homeowners Association Act. It was formed as a Maryland Non-Profit, Non-Stock Corporation and received tax-exempt status from the IRS as a 501(c)(4) Social Welfare organization. By this designation, the Columbia Association must demonstrate that their works benefit the community as a whole and not just members. In addition, open space and facilities owned by CA must be accessible to the general public.
It is worthy of noting here that the Columbia Association has worked through the last twenty years stating to the IRS that they do not operate in the manner of many other homeowners associations (to preserve their 501(c)(4) status) while at the same time adhering to State Law regarding homeowners associations. I posit that if HAL were presented with this dilemma (instead of keeping the Odyssey’s true mission secret), Dave would have never stood a chance.
Now, getting back to the logical fallacy; we have clearly established that adhering to the “lien payers only” position put forth by the authors would jeopardize the Columbia Association’s tax exempt status.
The next question we have to ask is “do arts districts exist as 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(3) organizations? The answer is a very big yes
Arts districts have been created throughout America, and most are designated as either a 501(c)(4) – CA’s current designation or a 501(c)(3) the designation sought for the Symphony Woods Trust.
So the last timber to fall here is the homeowners association argument. As in “should CA, as a homeowners association, be creating an arts district?” As I have alluded to here, I believe that the homeowners association label is just one face of the Columbia Association. I believe that an arts district affiliated with the Columbia Association, no matter where it is located, is just as relevant to Columbia as anything else CA does. I say this without any corroborating report or obscure article for justification. I just believe it. So I ask you, who is more anti-Columbian, the guy who says sometimes CA will do things that are not traditionally associated with homeowners associations, or the people that write CA should enforce an exclusive doctrine at their facilities?
Well, it seems Columbia’s Old Guard is up in arms again. This month’s outrage is directed at a concept plan for Symphony Woods. This plan first surfaced in media reports last week (here
), and CA presented further detail
at their Board of Directors meeting last night. During the resident speak-out portion of the meeting, nine people expressed opposition. The common element among the nine residents was opposition to “the process.” In fact, many of these residents alluded to “Russ Swatek's memo" during their allotted speak-out time.
For those who don’t know Russ Swatek, he is a well-mannered, soft-spoken gentleman. He is a former CA Board member (Long Reach), and clearly loves Columbia.
Between the CA news release about the Inner Arbor concept plan and the CA Board meeting last Thursday, Russ put out a nineteen point statement
(aka Russ Swatek's memo) that has been widely circulated among Columbia’s conspiracy class.
I found one of his nineteen points particularly interesting (emphasis mine):
Start new 16-step approval process: The new plan being proposed is radically different both in scope and in location from the previous Planning Board approved plan. If CA proceeds with this new plan it should (and “should’ should be ‘must”) start at the beginning of the 16-step Downtown development approval process. That process was crafted to provide the community with opportunities to provide comments and recommendations about proposed development, and should not be circumvented. In addition, if CA manages to circumvent this process it will set a very bad precedent.
What I find most interesting about this point is that in July 2010 Russ wrote an endorsement letter to the editor
("Park delay demonstrates why we need new blood on council")
for his good friend Alan Klein. Within this endorsement, Russ writes (once again, emphasis mine):
An example of how this legislation is now adversely affecting the community: CA is now unnecessarily delayed from using state-granted funds to develop a "Central Park" at Symphony Woods that would help preserve the trees and provide for all residents' enjoyment. This state money may not still be available when CA finally gets building permits for simple grading and path construction. The coalition's Alan Klein, a candidate for council seat now held by Ms. Sigaty, has often advocated for Symphony Woods Park and believes we must proceed with this tremendous community asset.
Now to be crystal clear, the “16-step approval process” that Russ wrote about last week and the “legislation” that Russ wrote about in 2010 are the exact same thing. I find it a little unsettling that when it comes to a concept he opposes, county regulations “provide the community with opportunities to provide comments and recommendations about proposed development.” On the other hand, these same regulations represent “unnecessary delays” for concept plans Russ supports. It leads me to think that maybe this really isn’t about process, maybe it’s about something else. hocoblogs@@@
I wanted to take a moment and spotlight a body of work performed by the Columbia Association. Last month, the Columbia Association released a report
on the demographics and socio-economic status of Columbians. It is a breathtaking piece of work that has not received a lot of notice, but its utility and impact on Columbia cannot be understated. Not since Howard Research and Development issued regular reports on Columbia has this community been so completely described. I encourage everyone in Columbia to follow the above link and download the report. It is amazing.
In addition, the most interesting feature of this body of work is the precision of the results. The ability to venture over to the U.S. Census
website and pull numbers related to Columbia (and even smaller sections of Columbia) has been around for quite awhile. However, there are drawbacks. The U.S. Census does not draw lines that neatly coincide with Columbia Village Boundaries. In addition, outparcels – such as Sewell’s Orchard or Beaverbrook are difficult to remove from that data available. The Columbia Association has gone the extra mile to do this. Their data is 100% lien assessed, Columbia data.
With that as a preamble, I hope to provide some depth and dimension to this fine work. CA provides us with a very clear snapshot of Columbia. Here I will build on one single element and provide perspective and trend.
When announcing the CA demographic and socio-economic data, the CA Today Blog posted a chart titled “Figure 9. Automobile Ownership in Columbia.” This chart shows that 31.8% of households own one car, 44% own two cars, 19.5% own 3 (or more) cars, and 4.7% of Columbia households do not own any car at all. As I read that chart, I began to think, “Is that good?” “Has it always been that way.” Peer Communities
My search to answer these questions started with two points. The first was to find other cities to compare to Columbia. I settled on the venerable Money Magazine “Best Places to Live
” list. After rising to number two on this list, Columbia (and Ellicott City) fell to number eight during the last iteration. For review, here is the current list:
- Carmel, IN
- McKinney, TX
- Eden Prairie, MN
- Newton, MA
- Redmond, WA
- Irvine, CA
- Reston, VA
- Columbia/Ellicott City, MD
- Overland Park, KS
- Chapel Hill, NC
Utilizing the same database as CA used for Columbia, I generated a chart comparing each community:
A quick note, the chart above uses CA data for Columbia. All other percentages are directly derived from the U.S. Census American Community Survey, 2006-2010 five-year estimate.
In comparison, Columbia does respectably well with these other communities. Columbia is very much in the middle of the pack in each category. For those who desire the individual numbers, please reference the table below:
Note, the average shown is calculated for reference, but readers should be mindful that this is an average of an estimate. Although not shown, each number in this table carries a margin of error. Therefore, the average should be viewed as a qualitative number and note quantitative.
To be certain, driving patterns have changed over the last forty years. U.S. Census data for Columbia indicates the vehicles available in households were as follows:
And on a percentage basis:
What this data shows is that as Columbia has grown, so has the number of multiple vehicle households. In particular, the number of households with 3 or more vehicles has been the fastest growing component. It is also important to note that since 1970, the price of a gallon of gasoline has increased
from $0.35 in 1970 to $3.53 in 2011. That’s an order of magnitude greater.
Anecdotally, this data does reflect some of the reality in Columbia. At its founding, Columbia was marketed in the urban northeast section of the United States. For those moving south to Columbia, many had (read – needed) only one car. After putting down roots here, it became quickly apparent that many households would need more than one car to carry out daily household duties. Over time, affluence grew and more than a few households saw fit to provide wheels to their offspring.
In fact there exists a pretty close correlation between household size and number of cars owned. Find below the comparison of single person households and households reporting a single vehicle available:
Now, (obviously) the lines are not coincident. To be fair, since Columbia began, there have been a consistent percentage of households that report having no vehicle. In addition, there are certainly households with more vehicles than people. What is compelling here is the similarity of the slope (rate of change, yea!). I took the time to linearize each line and plot the slope for each.
With respect to two-person households and two-vehicle households, the similarity is even closer:
And lastly, the 3-or-more households/vehicles chart.
So what have we learned? Admittedly, there is very little controversy surrounding these numbers. The number of vehicles owned by Columbia residents is consistent with other desirable communities. Moreover, historical data shows that the number of cars per household tracks household size pretty closely. It is this fully formed opinion that allows us to start asking the right questions. Should Columbia be comfortable with the status quo regarding automobile ownership? Would this community benefit with less cars? One study I would like to see done is to quantify the costs associated with owning/operating a third car in Howard County (insurance, maintenance, fuel costs, etc…). We could then ask the question, “Would it be better for our community if the costs associated with third car ownership were instead collected as taxes applied solely to mass transit?” I am not sure if that is the right policy, but I would love to see the analysis. HoCoBlogs@@@
Before I begin today, a few acknowledgements. I do not believe I will change any minds with this blog post, and that’s okay. The subject discussed below has been instilled and reinforced in the DNA of many that have lived here for decades. I do not wish to offend anyone or diminish any memories of how people perceived the early years of Columbia. However, this is my humble attempt to discuss how the Columbia Park and Recreation Association (now the Columbia Association) was formed, the role of the Board of Directors and the role of the Columbia Council. Please note that I am not a lawyer and do not propose a professional legal opinion in this matter. I welcome any legal insight if anyone trained in the profession cares to weigh in. With this in mind, I base my narrative on the documents available and I hope that if I have missed something, other documents will be produced to refute my claims here. With that said, pour a virtual cup of coffee and read along.
Editorial Note: Because some of the material discussed here refers back to the early years of the Columbia Association (CA), an occasional reference to the Columbia Park and Recreation Association (CPRA), Columbia’s original name, creeps in. The reader should understand that both citations (CA and CPRA) refer to the same organization.
Last week I discussed an Explore Howard article that described the dramatic changes some Columbia residents would like to impose on the Columbia Association. After the article appeared online, I started asking for more information, and was directed to the Maryland Homeowners Association (Inc) website for the documents that describe the legislation.
Of particular interest is the document titled “Major Benefits of Being Members of the Columbia Association (CA).” The first two bullet points in this document attempt to provide a basis for changing CA membership:
- The sole purpose of the Columbia Association in its Charter is to operate “for the promotion of the common good and social welfare of the people of the community of Columbia....” The Columbia Corporation is currently organized as a nonstock corporation with no other members than the 10 persons elected by Columbia’s ten villages to the Columbia Council, an organization that currently does nothing except elect itself to the CA Board of Directors.
The unnamed author begins well enough. The Columbia Association purpose is stated well. It is also true that CA is “currently organized as a nonstock corporation,” but it always has been a nonstock corporation and no legislation considered at this time (CA, ABC or otherwise) looks to change this status.
- The Columbia Council was in theory supposed to be the voice of the residents who must pay an annual tax-like fee to CA. Now, the Columbia Council has been made virtually defunct. As to the CA Board of Directors, the CA hired staff has told the Board that their loyalty as directors should be to the staff of CA and to the Board itself, and not directly to the Columbia peoples’ common good and social welfare. Therefore, the exclusion from CA corporate membership of residents who are required to pay annual fees to CA amounts to classic ”taxation without representation.”
The second bullet point starts off with theory, and this is where it gets dangerous.
“The Columbia Council was in theory supposed to be the voice of the residents who must pay an annual tax-like fee to CA.”
This quote is beyond theory - it is a fallacy. The facts do not support the theory. It is something that has been repeated (probably) a million times over the last four decades. There are a lot of people that believe it a core principal of the Next American City, but it remains, at best, a myth.
I have done some research on this, and what I have found contradicts this popular social mooring. The evidence I provide is from the early Columbia Park and Recreation Association Charter, Article Seven (Paragraph 3), which states:
(3) It is anticipated that as The Property is developed, incorporated community or neighborhood associations for the promotion of the welfare of residents of particular sections of The Property will be formed. Each such incorporated association, which shall meet the standards of organization and membership prescribed by the Board of Directors of this Corporation, shall have the right to elect one of the members thereof to a council, to be known as the Columbia Council, which shall be an unincorporated advisory group whose function shall be to consider and make recommendations to the associations for the benefit and welfare of the Property and the residents thereof.
Let’s take a minute to deconstruct this passage and cut through some of the Charter language. First we will clear up some definitions:
The Property – the legal definition of Columbia, Maryland.
Incorporated Community or Neighborhood Associations – The organizations we currently know colloquially as “Village Boards.”
Corporation – The Columbia Park and Recreation Association, now known as the Columbia Association.
Substituting the above definitions, the passage of the CA Charter is as follows:
(3) It is anticipated that as Columbia is developed, incorporated community or neighborhood associations (Village Boards) for the promotion of the welfare of residents of particular sections of Columbia will be formed. Each such Village Board, which shall meet the standards of organization and membership prescribed by the Board of Directors of the Columbia Association, shall have the right to elect one of the members thereof to a council, to be known as the Columbia Council, which shall be an unincorporated advisory group whose function shall be to consider and make recommendations to the Village Boards for the benefit and welfare of Columbia and the residents thereof.
And there it is, the Columbia Council was created to make recommendations to the Village Boards, not the Columbia Association. As stated in the CA Charter, the Columbia Council was an advisory group, and by the Charter they were to advise the Villages (“make recommendations to the associations”) on CA’s corporate decisions. Not advise the CA Board on resident’s wishes.
Now, out of an abundance of caution, I can see how it would seem that the Columbia Council was “voice of the residents.” In addition to being “an unincorporated advisory group,” the CA Charter states that the Columbia Council members were also members of the CA Board of Directors.
(A little foreshadowing here; in the history of CA, not all CA Board members were created equal. We will get to that soon enough.)
As members of the CA Board, the Columbia Council attended CA Board meetings and provided their input on the CA budget, the lien assessment, capital projects and all other right and proper board agenda items. The Columbia Council also had their own meetings to discuss CA related matters. In fact, the Columbia Council met far more often than the CA Board of directors. In this structure, the Columbia Council would ultimately arrive at conclusions. They would take positions on policies and proposed projects. Much of their decision-making was based on their experience as Columbians and in this way; they were the voice of Columbians. Working within this framework year after year reinforced the romantic notion that they were the “voice of the residents.” However, until the mid-1980’s, the Columbia Council always held a minority number of votes on the CA Board. For all the interaction with residents and positions taken on behalf of residents, the Columbia Council never had any decision making power. If the CA Board of directors acquiesced to the Columbia Council position, it was because of the majority’s wisdom. Either way, it was the job of the Columbia Council to explain to the residents, through the Village Boards why CA Board outcomes happened.
One final thought on the ABC legislation benefits, the author also describes a scenario in which the current CA Board of Directors is beholden only to themselves and the CA staff. This is hogwash. CA staff does provide training on nonprofit board of directors for the CA Board. It is the same standard for the CA Board as for your local elementary school PTA officers or any other nonprofit corporation. Moreover, their proposed legislation has nothing to do with this. It would not change the duties of the Directors.
Overall, I once again applaud the efforts of those that seek to improve the Coumbia Association. However, I am very concerned that much of rationale for change is misplaced and founded on strong memories, not facts. I welcome the author to sit down for a chat and we can set the record straight on this issue.