Thursday, April 30, 2009

Holey Moley

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There seems to be a building boom for churches in Howard County these days. According to this story by Jennifer Broadwater in the Columbia Flier, the Columbia Presbyterian Church on Route 108 has finally received the go ahead to double the size of their facility after initially being turned down by the county hearing examiner.

The neighbors of the church are not happy.
"Bruce Corriveau, a resident whose property abuts the church land and who has been serving as a spokesman for the group of concerned neighbors, said his group was "deeply disappointed" in the board's decision.

"I really don't think the board appreciated the concerns of the neighbors or factored our concerns into their decision," he said, adding that his group is considering appealing the decision."

The church purchased this 7 acre site back in 1988 from one of Howard County’s original veterinarians, Fred Lewis.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Oh Deer Three

I came across this article by Shantee Woodards in the Capital newspaper. It described a pilot program on Gibson Island that has reduced the deer tick population by 80%.

That’s significant.

What was more interesting is that this reduction has been achieved thanks to something called the 4-Poster Deer Treatment System that comes from a company right here in Ellicott City, C.R. Daniels.

the contraptions are set up with bins containing corn, which acts as bait for deer. As a deer walks inside the system, it rubs against paint rollers, which administer a coating of insecticide to its head and body.

When ticks try to feed off of the deer, they consume the insecticide and die, said John Carroll, research entomologist at the USDA's Animal Parasitic Diseases Laboratory in Beltsville.”

Wow. I wonder if Dr. Beilenson knows about this.

I was surprised to find that CR Daniels was even into the deer ticks. The last time I checked in with them their business was primarily in the manufacture of canvas bags.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Scene This Week In...

I received an email this week from Barbara Kellner at the Columbia Archives asking me to plug the ninth annual Columbia Bike About this weekend. Barbara started this spring bike tour of Columbia nine years ago and though I’ve never participated I’ve heard from folks who have and they all tell me they learned new things about the town from the ride.

There are lots of hidden treasures along the 93.5 miles of Columbia bike paths. The Bike About only covers 12 miles but each year the Columbia Archives puts together a different route to highlight some of these treasures like this little park in the Bryant Woods neighborhood of Wilde Lake.

The weather is supposed to be nice this Saturday so pump up the tires on those bikes and go exploring in Columbia.

If the only exercise you are interested in doing this weekend is lifting a glass of wine you are in luck. In downtown Ellicott City the Wine Bin will be hosting a wine tasting to benefit Blossoms of Hope and Voices for Children. The new wine shop will put up a tent next to their building on Main Street and offer tastings of wine and chocolate. Tickets are $25.00 each and may be purchased at the door.

After sampling some wines you can get some exercise by exploring the shops in the old town. You never know what you might find. Be careful though, last week I spotted this sign in the window of the Antique Depot on Maryland Avenue.

A Real Pisser

Sometimes I just like to share something that gave me a good belly laugh. Yesterday, when I was searching through Google Images, I can across this.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Oh Deer Two

Earlier this month I wrote a post about the large number of deer in our neighborhood. Much to the consternation of their human neighbors, the deer seem to be enjoying the vegetation that comes with a new housing development.

Yesterday I found out that this is an issue throughout the region. The cover story by Liza Mundy in the Washington Post Magazine is entitled “Deer Heaven” and it provides an in-depth look at the lives of our clever four legged friends. Turn outs these critters are pretty smart and highly adaptable. You can read her story here.

New Stores for The Mall

According to this story by Sue Schultz in the Baltimore Business Journal, The Mall in Columbia has recently signed leases for seven new stores.

Four of the new businesses are food court tenant’s including Chipotle which is premiering the first food court unit for the chain. The other food court tenants are the previously mentioned Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Arby’s, and Ruby Thai.

The other three new stores are Bare Escentuals, Vans and Monica Jewelry.

It is interesting to note that this leasing activity comes in advance of next months annual ICSC spring convention in Las Vegas when the lions share of new retail leasing is conducted.

Just Don’t Come by at 3:16

Mama Wordbones spotted this sign yesterday. This has got to be one of the shortest open house time frames I’ve ever witnessed.

What gets me is that the realtor was able to blanket the community with bandit signs all weekend for a fifteen minute “open house” on Sunday.

Is this some kind of new marketing tactic?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ten Votes

Ten votes. That was the margin of Phil Kirsch’s victory against Linda Odum in yesterdays Columbia Council election in Wilde Lake. That has to be heartbreaking but such is the political life. A wordbones wag of the tail to Linda for putting herself out there.

This particular election was also a temperature taking of the relative strength of the Liz Bobo political in the geographic core of her constituency. Although it looks as if it is as strong as ever there has to be some concern in her camp that this race was as close as it was.

In Long Reach, James Howard got whooped. I don’t really know Russ Swatek but the folks in Long Reach seem to like him. His victory margin was 137 votes. I feel bad for James. He has performed an extraordinary level of volunteer community for a young man. We need more guys like James in this town. I hope he stays involved.

Those were the only races I commented on before the election and so those are the only ones I’ll write a post election post about.

Besides, it’s a gorgeous, albeit a tad warm, day and I’d rather be outside on the veranda enjoying a five o’clock cocktail.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Letter from the General Manager

This just popped into my inbox from Greg Hamm so I thought I'd share.

Dear Friends,

By now most of you know about the recent decision by General Growth Properties, Inc. (GGP) and certain subsidiaries to seek relief under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code. In light of the active, long-standing partnership with the community that has been so central to creating a winning vision for downtown Columbia's future, I thought it appropriate to briefly address why this decision to reorganize was made, and what it means for properties in Columbia and the formal process now under review by the Howard County Planning Board (ZRA 113).

Chapter 11 reorganization

GGP is the ultimate parent company of approximately 750 subsidiaries, not all of which were involved in the recent filings. Local properties NOT part of the filings include:

• The Mall in Columbia
• Columbia Master Planned Communities
• Columbia Town Center Development

After months of negotiating with creditors, our Board of Directors and management team determined that a court-supervised restructuring is the best means of preserving the value of the company. In the simplest of terms, the filing aims to reduce and restructure GGP's debt because unprecedented circumstances in the credit markets have made it impossible to refinance maturing debt. As a preliminary matter, it's important to clarify that Chapter 7 is the form of bankruptcy which results in liquidation of a company and its assets. By contrast, Chapter 11 reorganization provides time to restructure and reduce debt while continuing to operate.
We are very aware that this is a complex process with many moving parts. For anyone who is interested in keeping current on the filings and related developments, including access to all public documents, please visit our website,

In the meantime, business as usual

All GGP properties, whether or not they have filed, will continue to operate as usual. The filing will not cause delay or alter GGP's pursuit of the public approvals relative to downtown Columbia and the General Plan Amendment submitted in October of 2008. We believe that Columbia's underlying real estate fundamentals remain strong and that the plan can be realized once market conditions improve. As in all great communities, adversity and challenge will hone our skills and deepen our resolve. It is precisely because of these economic challenges and uncertainties that a coherent plan for Columbia's downtown is so important.

A strong company

As most of you know, GGP is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) with a primary business of owning and operating over 200 shopping centers in 44 states, in addition to a number of office buildings throughout the country. A smaller part of our business is the ownership and development of five master-planned communities. GGP's holdings in Columbia include all three of these business lines.

Although GGP's core business remains sound and is performing well with stable cash flows, the company believes that Chapter 11 is the best process for restructuring maturing mortgage loans, reducing the company's corporate debt and establishing a sustainable, long-term capital structure for the company. The collapse of the credit markets has made it impossible for GGP to refinance maturing debt outside of Chapter 11.

GGP remains committed to finishing the planning process that this community started together nearly four years ago. We want to thank all of you for your continued support during a long and challenging process.

Please send any questions or comments that you may have to
Columbia, now more than ever!

Greg Hamm
Vice President,
Master Planned Communities
General Manager, Columbia

There you have it.


I decided to take another look at this Twitter thing. When JessieX first made me aware of Twitter last August, I signed up and then pretty much forgot about it. Admittedly, I just didn’t get it.

I’m still not sure I understand how best to use this communication tool but that never stopped me before.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

She’s Back!

No sooner do we learn that the ethics complaint against Liz Bobo has been dismissed, than she fires off an email to the Wilde Lake villagers endorsing Phil Kirsch in his bid for reelection to the Columbia Council.

“Phil and his wife, Chris, have a good life, including doting over their new grandchild. He does not need this position for his own gratification. I am sad to see him be the target of a costly negative campaign. Yet he is willing to continue to serve the residents for another year at this pivotal time for our beloved Columbia .”

Is she implying that “our beloved Columbia” would be imperiled by electing Linda Odum instead of Phil?

Liz is feeling a little gun shy this time around though. Unlike last year, this email was sent via her account instead of her state delegate email account.

Taking Your Kid to Work

“Can we listen to Raffi?”

My daughter and I were driving through Columbia this morning. I had my coffee, she had her OJ. It is taking your child to work day and we were headed to my office. I was initially taken off guard by the Raffi request.

I had honestly forgotten that Raffi was still in the car.

Peanut made the Raffi discovery. While I drove she went exploring in the large glove box thing that separates the front seats in my truck. Most days I’d be hard pressed to give an accurate inventory of what is in there. It’s more of a cargo bin than a glove box.
A random sample:

· used napkin
· box of Panda licorice (opened)
· nametag from HoCo Economic Development Core Tour 08
· dozen dry cleaning receipts (I never use them, she knows me!)
· 4 lollipops, various sizes and flavors
· golf ball
· corkscrew
· packet of Excedrin,

and apparently, not one but two Raffi CD’s.

It has been awhile for Raffi and me. Peanut is 10 ½ now. Raffi was big at least three years ago. Her music appreciation has moved on thankfully. Now we sometimes even share a new music experience together. Last night for example, we sang all 9 verses and nine refrains of My Darling Clementine. Until last night, I never knew My Darling Clementine had that many verses.

Anyway, this morning she rediscovered Raffi and with him, her youth. For me, it was just a way that my kid put a stamp on my otherwise ordered work day routine.

I sang along.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sheraton Spiffs Up

The Sheraton Hotel in Town Center has just completed a $12 million renovation of the 290 room property. According to this item in today’s Citybiz Real Estate, the renovations include a major renovation of the lobby with “ a signature water feature, and dual registration pods. Another key feature of the improved lobby is the Link@SheratonSM, a communal connection destination with free Wi-Fi and broadband access, seating, and a flat-screen LCD television.”

The Sheraton, the first hotel in Columbia, was originally called the Cross Keys Inn and was one of only two hotels ever built by The Rouse Company. The other was the Cross Keys Inn in the Village of Cross Keys in Baltimore.

At least someone is able to make a multi million dollar investment in Town Center these days!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


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As the weather warms, golfers return to the links. When golfers return so do errant golf balls and for folks who live on Sandy Ridge Court in Lyndwood, that’s a problem. According to this story by Jennifer Broadwater in the Columbia Flier, the residents of Sandy Ridge Court want Timbers at Troy golf course to reconfigure the 13th hole of the course because of an “ongoing problem of golf balls hitting their houses, breaking windows and, in general, creating a safety hazard in their back yards.”

The thing is, the golf course was there before the houses were built. It’s not like these people woke up one day and to find a golf course in their backyard.

“Covenants tied to the course and the surrounding Lyndwood property state that homeowners “assumed the risk of injury to or death of persons and of damage to property resulting from the use of the golf course by other persons in a reasonable manner.”

It could be argued that some duffers stretch the definition of “reasonable manner” but the fact remains that this is, and always has been, a golf course community.

The county department of Recreation and Parks, the owner of the course, has informed the neighbors that it does not plan to change the configuration of the hole.


HoCo Home Prices Increasing

According to this article by Michele Lerner in the, Howard County was one of three of the ten richest counties in the country that experienced housing price increases in the past year.

“In Howard County, Maryland, prices rose by 4.3% from February 2008 to February 2009. In Douglas County, Colorado, prices rose by 2.7% and in Putnam County, New York, home values rose by 5.8%.”

The other seven counties in the top ten saw price declines.

Of course, this is just an increase in the median sales price, not the median home value. There are plenty of HoCo homes that are worth less now than they were last year. The good news is that at least home prices are beginning to stabilize.

As I’ve said before, compared to most parts of the country, we’ve got it good.

Monday, April 20, 2009

No Takers at Auction

While others debate whether Dale Thompson Builders may or may not be out of business one thing is certain, they are pretty much out of their uncompleted Scot’s Glen development in Columbia.

According to this item in the Howard/ Arundel Report, an auction was held earlier this month for about a dozen homes in various stages of completion and 18 finished lots in the community. The winning bidder for all of the properties was Susquehanna Bank, the lender for the project.

This is yet another indication of just how far the local market for age restricted housing has fallen.

Making Good with Grassroots

According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun yesterday, Bruce Taylor has backed off trying to stiff the non profit for half of the security deposit on a house they rented in Ellicott City. Taylor and Grassroots apparently reached an out of court settlement last week to return all but $834.80 of the $10,500.00 security deposit.

Taylor’s attorney, Ronald L. Spahn receives the award for understatement of the week when he told the reporter that “his advice to clients would be to avoid disputes with a charity.”


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Developer Breaks Ground for Town Center Development

April 19, 2012. GGP/MPC broke ground this morning on the first phase of the $500 million redevelopment of Columbia’s Town Center. The ground breaking comes three years after the developer won approval of the zoning amendment allowing for 5,500 new housing units and the creation of an new arts district in Symphony Woods.

The early spring morning ceremony was held in front of the vacant Sears store at the mall. The former department store is to be replaced with a new parking garage. County Executive Ken Ulman was joined by Delegate Jud Malone and Councilperson Mary Kay Sigaty in helping GGP/MPC vice president Greg Hamm to swing ceremonial sledge hammers at the building.

Alan Klein, spokesperson for the Coalition for Columbia’s Downtown was also in attendance. “We have always been supportive of this development program,” he said, “and are glad to have contributed to its success.”

GGP/MPC was spun off from General Growth Properties last year as part of the company’s bankruptcy reorganization. The new entity is a joint venture between General Growth Properties and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and focuses primarily on master planned communities.

Just before the groundbreaking, the 34th annual Clyde’s 10K race was held in Town Center. 1,200 runners crossed the finish line by 10 AM followed by a massive consumption of carbohydrates.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Risk Rouse Style

There is a good article in the Chicago Tribune contrasting how The Rouse Company approached risk to how General Growth Properties looked at it. In this article, Jay Hanock points out that Rouse “took risks with malls and marketplaces, not finances. General Growth Properties did the opposite.”

No Thank You

I received this post card in the mail this week. My initial reaction was “cool.” I’d been planning on picking up one of the new iPod Shuffles anyway. Now I could get about thirty bucks off. What’s not to like about that?

Then I turned the card over.

On the other side was a box for me to check off before I signed the card and sent it back in.
“I declare that I experienced scratching of my iPod nano that impaired my use or enjoyment of my iPod nano.”


That simply wasn’t true. After five years of regular use, I am still enjoying my first generation iPod nano, scratches and all. I could not in good conscience check this box. I wonder how this frivolous litigation got this far?

No thank you.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Scene This Week In…

After two days of cold and rain the return of the sun felt glorious. The dogs welcomed the return of the warmth as well. Yesterday, when I stopped by my house around noon, I opened the back door to let the dogs out into the yard. The golden retriever headed straight for the soft green grass and dropped herself down. She proceeded to roll over on her back and then stretched out and rubbed her nose against the ground. I knew exactly how she felt.Her ritual welcome of the return of the sun made her this week’s scene in Ellicott City.

An anonymous commenter on my last post wondered what was up with the giant pink pump in the parking of Town Center yesterday. That was Maggie Browns shoe.

Maggie Brown is the outgoing president of the Columbia Association. Last night she was honored with a private reception in the Spear Center in the General Growth Properties building followed by a public celebration featuring Deanna Bogart at the lakefront. It was a picture perfect spring evening in Columbia.

The reception in the Spear Center was very well attended and GGP’s big news of the day was a hot topic. Gregg Hamm was characteristically upbeat and reiterated that the Columbia properties were largely unaffected by the filing.

I also spoke with Michael Cornell, the Columbia Council representative from the Village of River Hill. Originally Michael had planned to step down when his term was up this year but he has since changed his mind. He told me that he tries to hold the radical middle in Columbia politics. I thought that was a great description.

I also spoke some with Lloyd Knowles. He quipped that he wanted to name what he referred to as a “highway” slicing through Symphony Woods “Dennis Lane.” I had to admit that was funny. I told him I would happily pour the first yard of asphalt if afforded that honor.

All in all it was nice send off to lady who has been a part of the Columbia scene for as long as there has been a Columbia scene.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I spoke to a friend of mine this afternoon. She works for GGP. I asked her how she felt today.

“Relieved,” she replied.

After months of uncertainty, they can finally get back to the business of running the business.

Down but Not Quite Out

The announcement today that General Growth Properties has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following the company’s financial travails. Two days ago I posed the question as to whether a bankruptcy filing was imminent given the mounting pressure being exerted on the company by certain bondholders.

At least we now know the answer to that question.

So what does all of this mean for Columbia?

Frankly, I really don’t know. What I do know is that a bankruptcy filing is exactly what GGP’s largest shareholder, Pershing Capital, has been pushing for over the last six months. Pershing Capital is the investment vehicle of William Ackman. He believes GGP is worth more in bankruptcy than out. According to this story from last week in Seeking Alpha, a GGP bankruptcy can be beneficial to the shareholders. In this post from Todd Sullivan, Ackman was quoted from a recent REIT symposium:

"Bankruptcy is also designed for companies that are solvent, but have liquidity problems that are due to events outside of their control,"...

"It's one of the most interesting investment opportunities I've seen in my career," he said.

"I've learned that, when a solvent company files for bankruptcy and you have a lead equity holder, you can marshal it thorough the bankruptcy process," Ackman said.

It remains to be seen how this will affect GGP’s Columbia holdings.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bad News for HoCo Panhandlers

Senator Ed Kasemeyer may not have had success getting his emergency legislation pushed through to help out the ill fated petition drive to keep Harris Teeter out of Turf Valley but the Howard County delegation was successful in getting a law passed that prohibits panhandling along state roads and right of ways in Howard County.

HB 864 prohibits “a person from standing in a State highway or the highway right-of-way in Howard County to solicit money or donations from an occupant of a vehicle; and making the provisions of the Act severable.”

In other words, you can get hit with a $60.00 fine if you break this law.

I wonder how they think someone who has reduced themselves to roadside panhandling is going to come up with sixty bucks to pay the fine.

For their sake I hope the recession is over before the law takes effect on October 1st.

Local Guy Heads Top 50 List

It isn’t exactly a list you’d want to be on, but John J. Hildreth, an Ellicott City resident, has found himself at the top of the list of tax scofflaws in Maryland. John was listed as the officer of Engineered Framing Systems which owes the State of Maryland $476,542.52 in withholding taxes.

If you think it’s painful to write a check for your taxes today just think how Mr. Hildreth must feel.

April Showers

Maybe I’m missing something.

Last night I decided to take Peanut out to buy a new raincoat. As typical with growing kids, she had outgrown her old raincoat after two spring seasons. I was actually thankful that it lasted that long.

Anyway, I was thinking this should be a pretty easy task. It is April after all and I’m thinking that if April showers bring May flowers it must surely also bring raincoats to retailers.

Boy was I mistaken, must be a dad thing.

We headed out of our Ellicott City house to the Long Gate Shopping Center. My plan of attack was to hit Kohl’s first, then Old Navy and if neither of them panned out we’d go to Target.

The lady at Kohls told me that they didn’t get many spring jackets for kids in this year. The salesclerk at Old Navy gave me a sympathetic look as she suggested I try Target. The red shirted Target employees looked at me like I had two heads. No, they didn’t have any kids raincoats but I might want to try the Women’s department.

“I’ve never gotten anything from the Women’s department before,” Peanut tells me as we trudge off again. No success there either.

Back in the car, we headed over to the Sears Grand store in the Chatham Station Shopping Center on Route 40. We found nothing at all grand about this Sears Grand.

“We only have these three,” the sales lady informs me pointing to a small rack in the middle of the aisle. They are all at least three sizes too small. “They are half off,” she adds. She suggests we try the Columbia Mall store.

Ironically, as we headed back down Route 29 towards Columbia, it started raining again.

Upon our arrival we parked under cover by Nordstrom which meant that we had to pass the LL Bean store on our way to Sears. We decided to get out of the rain and check there first. It was here that we finally spotted the elusive kids raincoats. She even had her choice of colors. She chose this lovely purple number.
Just out of curiousity, I decided to see what the Sears store had before we left. They had the same dismal collection as the Sears Grand store.

I’m beginning to think that the economy isn’t the retailer’s only problem these days.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bondholders Suing GGP

The latest development in the financial tsunami that has engulfed General Growth Properties is that a group of bondholders have instructed their trustee to sue the developer for defaulting on the payment of $395 million of debt that was due on March 16th.

Does this mean a bankruptcy filing is imminent?

According to the Wall Street Journal this “pushes General Growth closer to a bankruptcy filing but doesn’t mean that one is imminent. A trial spurred by the bondholders’ lawsuit likely would take months to play out. Meanwhile, General Growth previously pledged to work with its unsecured lenders to craft an out-of-court restructuring of its balance sheet by the end of June. If General Growth meets that commitment, the trial might not be needed.”

Complicating GGP’s efforts to restructure their debt, much of which was incurred when they purchased The Rouse Company five years ago, is the current constriction in the capital markets for commercial real estate lending.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fowl Felons Strike Bridge Again

According to this story by Don Markus in The Sun today, the Iron Bridge Wine Company on Route 108 in Columbia was attacked by vandals again last night.

The owners suspect it was another attempt by animal rights activists to get the restaurant to stop serving foie gras.

The Other Columbia

You gotta feel for this guy, but I can surely relate to his travails.

In theory, it should be easy for me to walk from my office to Ken Ulman’s office. The temporary county offices are right across the street on Dobbin Road from my office. In practice, it is a far from pedestrian friendly experience. As I’ve written before, Dobbin Road, a major commercial area, has no sidewalks. It also has no crosswalks.

Maybe this is because the businesses on Dobbin Road also have no representation on the Columbia Association Board of Directors. Like many commercial areas in Columbia, the businesses pay the CPRA assessment but have no one to represent them because they are not located in a village.

If these areas got half the attention that Symphony Woods is getting from CA, I’d bet we’d have sidewalks.

Limbo Houses

They are the visible reminders of the mortgage mess that triggered our current recession; houses that sit empty without even a “For Sale” in the yard. We have at least two of them in my neighborhood. I call them limbo houses because they truly are in limbo. They haven’t been foreclosed on though the owners have long since defaulted on the mortgage. No one takes care of them. There is no key box on the door because the doors aren’t even locked. I walked through it this morning. Apparently no one is paying the utility bills either because the power was turned off. Limbo houses exist in almost every community in Howard County.
This one has been empty for over two years. It is only three years old. Three years ago this townhome and others like it were commanding prices of over a half million dollars. It is hard to tell what it is worth today because each day it remains in this limbo state its value decreases.


The Washington Post carried a front page story about this problem in today’s paper. You can read Dina ElBoghdady’s article here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Get That Man a Map

According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun today, the Longfellow neighborhood is now in the Village of Wilde Lake instead of Harpers Choice.

In an article about the pending retirement of Columbia Association president, Maggie Brown, he wrote that Maggie lives in “in the Longfellow portion of Wilde Lake village.”

We knew Larry had problems with Columbia history, now it appears he is geographically challenged as well.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

For those of us who follow a Christian faith today is Good Friday. Even as a not so good Catholic, I would have to acknowledge that Friday is indeed good. Outside of religious observances, there’s not much going on today. My office is officially closed as are many other offices throughout Howard County including the county offices.

It’s a good day to haul trash though. The landfill is open.

The quiet time gave me an opportunity to write a post about the upcoming Columbia village elections but first I needed some help with a name from the past that I was having difficulty remembering. When you need a name from the past, a good place to start is with Pearl Atkinson-Stewart. Pearl is the longest serving member of the Columbia Council.

I needed help recalling the name of the Columbia Council representative from the Village of Town Center who served before Donna Rice. That was about ten years ago. Pearl reminded me that the gentlemen’s name was Joe Merke.

Now I can write the post that I set out to write.

Back in the day, after Joe decided that he no longer had the stomach for serving on the Columbia Council, he asked me if I would consider running for his seat. At the time I lived in the Vantage Point neighborhood of Town Center. I let my ego get the better of me and accepted his invitation without thinking.

As it turned out, the heir apparent to Joe was Donna Rice. Donna had faithfully served on the Town Center village board and she believed she was logical choice to succeed Joe. To complicate matters even more, Suzanne Waller, the current Columbia Council representative, decided that she too was ready to step up and fill Joe’s seat.

As the campaign unfolded I slowly sobered up and realized that serving on the Columbia Council was the last thing I wanted to do. In the end I finished up third in the three way race and Donna Rice was the victor. The only positive moment of the entire experience was when I received the endorsement of the Columbia Flier. A few days after the paper came out with their endorsements I ran into the Editor In Chief at a community function. I thanked her for the support.

“I don’t know how good that will be for you,” she cautioned, “our track record is pretty dismal in that regard.”

How prophetic.

All of this finally brings me to the point of this post. I like two of the candidates in the Columbia Council races this month. I’d really like to help them out but I’m afraid that in endorsing them it could have the opposite effect.

People will regularly tell me that they don’t much agree with me. Some will attempt to sugar coat it by saying I amuse them but most just flat out tell me I’m wrong. I’m okay with this because I’m not running for anything.

The two people I do like live in Long Reach and Wilde Lake.  They are running for something and I don’t want to jinx their chances by coming right out with a stated endorsement.

I’ll opt for a subliminal approach.

If you live in Long Reach and you think I’m a wacko, please don’t vote for James Howard. If you live in Wilde Lake and think I’m an idiot, please don’t vote for Linda Odum.

Village election day is Saturday, April 25th.

Have a Good Friday.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

It’s Good to Have a Truck

Last night, as we loaded up ten bags of mulch at Lowes in Gateway Overlook, I was thankful that I owned an SUV.

Owning one of these may be more prudent but they aren’t much good for hauling mulch.

Oh Deer!

Last night, on the eleven o’clock news on WBAL-TV, there was this story about the rising number of cases of Lyme disease in Howard County. Dr. Peter Bielenson, the Howard County Health Officer, has attributed the increase to the new subdivisions encroaching on the deer’s habitat. Lyme disease is carried by ticks on deer and mice.

We have quite a few deer in our neighborhood. They regularly stroll between the houses at night feasting on the arborvitae plants.

Arborvitae is another one of those plants popular with new homebuilders. They are cheap, they grow fast, and they’re evergreens. Every home in our neighborhood has at least one planted in their yard. Most of them now look like this.
The deer love them.

Recognizing the Good Guys

Sometimes, Tales of Two Cities gets email from the blog reading public. Mostly folks have nice things to say and sometimes they say things that make me smile. Karen Lubieniecki sent me one of those. She wrote that she read this blog and the other HoCo blogs but then followed it up by qualifying that it is part of her job to do so. 

I’m happy to help keep anyone gainfully employed so when Karen also asked for a favor, I readily complied. Besides, she works for the good guys

Karen works for the Association of Community Services of Howard County. Each year they present the Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Awards to recognize those in our community “whose daily labor is the reason Howard County has a thriving network of human services, both public and private, to address its residents’ needs. “ 

Pictured above are the 2008 recipients of the awards. Rear L-R:  Debra Popiel, Chair, Audrey Robbins Humanitarian Awards Committee; Terry Owens, WMAR2 ABC News TV, Emcee; Sgt. Steve Martin, Howard County Domestic Violence Unit (DVU), Employee Team of the Year; Judy Pittman, Special Tribute recipient;  Lt. Ronald Denton, DVU; Kathleen Turner, DVU.  Front, seated: Molly Gale, DVU; Kim Bray, Gilchrist Hospice Howard County Volunteers, Volunteer Team of the Year; Sandy Jaworski, Volunteer of the Year. 

Karen is looking for nominations for this year.

Who should be nominated?  Maybe a colleague tutors people who need to learn English.  Perhaps an office mate regularly delivers food to a shelter.  Perhaps there was a team of people who provided the information and resources your family needed to survive a health, financial, or other crisis.  Nominees can also be from a service club or faith-based organization which has teams of people providing services to the community. Nominees serve as volunteers or paid staff.”


In other words, these are awards for the good guys (and gals of course).  You can get more information and nomination forms by visiting their website. Nominations are due May 1st.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

In This Months Business Monthly

I’m basically an optimistic sort of fellow. Rather than dwell on the negative I tend to look for silver linings in the clouds. I don’t need press reports to tell me the economy is bad. I see that everyday in my business with firms downsizing and trying to sublease space. At the same time, I notice things that tell me our local situation isn’t as bad as it appears on the surface.

That was my theme this month in my column in The Business Monthly. Instead of fixating on local store closings and layoffs, I took notice of the positive things going on like store openings and new businesses locating in the county. Even an optimistic old dog like me was pleasantly surprised at what I found. The bottom line is, compared to the rest of the country; we have it pretty good here. Consider the fact that while Starbucks closes stores elsewhere, the stores in Howard County remain unaffected. Similarly, while Ritz Camera is shuttering more than 300 stores nationwide, the store in the Mall is one of the 400 that will remain open for business.

That is not to say that we are unaffected by the national economic downturn. We most certainly are. The point is that the impact here is much less than in other areas of the country and for that I am grateful.

You can read this month’s column here.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Burger Bonanza

I regularly grab a quick lunch with my two colleagues at work. Though we have our favorites like Sonoma’s and Pub Dog, we like to venture out and try new joints too. When Fatburger came to town we decided that we’d check it out after the initial crowds died down. We were actually looking forward to it, having heard that their burgers were the best.

That’s always a tricky thing though. It’s kind of like places that claim to have the best crab cake. In my many years I’ve found that not everyone likes a crab cake the same way.

The bottom line is that we were disappointed with Fatburger for three reasons. It was dirty (the floor was sticky), the service was slow, and the burgers were burnt.

That got us to talking about who has the best burger around here. So far, I’d have to say that Fuddruckers gets my vote but lately I’ve heard a lot of buzz about Five Guys.

Today, while at the Mall, I spotted this sign.

The local burger war is starting to get intense.

Nice Try but…

Everyone knows local home sales are in a slump. If you are trying to sell an age restricted unit, you know, one of those “active adult” homes, the slump is even worse. In the not too distant past, homebuilders were flooding the market with this product. The inevitable finally occurred, and now supply has far outpaced demand.

Not surprisingly, one the developers of age restricted or active adult housing came up with a solution. Brantley Development Group, developers of three of these types of communities in Howard County sought to amend Section 103.A of the Zoning Regulations to allow up to 20% of the units in an age restricted community to be sold to people under 55.

Last night, the county council said no deal. According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun, ZRA 108 “was defeated by a unanimous Howard County Council Monday night after strong opposition from older residents.”

I think Councilperson Courtney Watson summed it up nicely when she said “I cannot find any redeeming qualities in this bill.”

Nice try anyway. I guess this proves that developers don’t always get their way despite what some people think.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Ubiquitous Bradford Pear Tree

The covenants that required the developer of each parcel in Columbia to plant flowering trees resulted in hundreds of Bradford Pear trees being planted all over town. The Bradford Pear is fast growing, relatively inexpensive, and produces a very nice early spring blossom. Consequently they have been planted with abandon all throughout Columbia and Ellicott City.

What’s not to like about this explosion of color which heralds in our Howard County spring?

They are not a tree for the long haul. According to this article by Deb Magnes on the Dave’s Garden website;

“They split easily, they grow suckers, and they have a very shallow root system. As they grow taller, much stress is put on the lower and larger joints of the tree, which invariably causes splitting. The suckers grow almost as fast as the grass around them, and cannot be mowed without damaging a typical lawn mower. It is difficult to plant anything around them except grass, because when digging the holes for new plants a shallow root can be struck with every other hole. There are very few of these that make it to 30 years old without splitting. The split trees are beginning to line our street, a few at a time. Adding one more element to their negative proclivities. That is, the hazard of falling on something or someone.”
I spotted this Bradford meltdown today on Oakland Mills Road. I hope it didn’t fall on anyone.

Troy Regional Park to Get Funding

According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun yesterday, County Executive Ken Ulman has included $1.6 million in his proposed budget for the Troy Regional Park.

Though the county has owned the land adjacent to Troy Hill Business Park for over ten years, this is the first time it has received funding for development. The first phase program will include two playing fields, bathrooms, a gazebo and parking.

The county council must vote on the executives proposed budget by June 1st.

Field Trip

Growing up around here I took umpteen field trips to Washington, DC. By the time I reached my forties the prospect of a trip down the pike to visit the monuments and museums had pretty much lost its allure, so when Mama Wordbones suggested that we head down to see the cherry blossoms yesterday I was initially less than enthusiastic.

Then she suggested we take our bikes.

In all these years I have never taken my bike to DC. I suppose it just never occurred to me but I gotta tell ya, it’s the way to go.

We parked the car at 17th and L (for free on a Sunday) and rode down around the White House to the Tidal Basin. While the cherry trees were quite spectacular, the highlight for me was two memorials I hadn’t seen before.
Though it was dedicated in 1997, this was the first time I had visited the FDR Memorial. The 7.5 acre memorial is one of the largest in the nation but it feels more like an intimate park. The quotations etched in the red South Dakota granite seem very poignant today.

The other first was the World War II Memorial which anchors the opposite end of the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial. Though it was only completed in 2004, it looks as though it was always meant to be there.

Sometimes I guess you can still be surprised by what you find in your own backyard!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Virgin Fest Considering Merriweather

According to this article by Ryan Sharow in the Baltimore Business Journal, the two day Virgin Mobile Music Festival is contemplating moving this years festival from Pimilico in Baltimore to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.

Festival promoters are signaling that this year’s event may be smaller in scale than previous years which drew an average of 60,000 concert goers.

An announcement is expected in May.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Problem with Retroactivity

The fate of Marc Norman and his union buddies’ petition drive to place CB58 on the ballot was debated in a senate hearing in Annapolis yesterday. According to this article by Larry Carson in The Sun, an emergency bill sponsored by Senator Ed Kasemeyer got a “warm reception” at the hearing.

“Local election boards have been using a looser standard for decades, and Kasemeyer and his backers said the court-imposed rules, adopted by the state election board last week, are too strict and are unfair.

"We are going to change it," State Sen. Roy Dyson, the committee vice chair told one witness who supports the bill.”

The tricky question surrounds the retroactive piece of the bill. Norman needs the emergency bill to be retroactive in order for his petition effort to derail the Harris Teeter supermarket in Turf Valley to survive. A few senators, including Senator Alan Kittleman, have a problem with this. They believe it could potentially open a huge can of worms.

If the bill is made retroactive for Marc Norman, Ruth Jacobs think it should be made retroactive for her as well. It was her petition drive in Montgomery County that resulted in the Court of Appeals ruling that started all this.

The question is where do you stop? If Jacobs has her way the bill would be made retroactive to 2007 instead of the December 2008 date that Mr. Ed has proposed.

What’s to keep someone from arguing that it should be pushed back even further?

Is GGP Too Big to Fail?

Rarely a day goes by anymore without someone in the business press claiming that a bankruptcy filing by General Growth Properties is imminent. Despite several missed deadlines for renegotiating the terms of the debt held by its bondholders however, it still hasn’t happened.

What gives?

Perhaps it is because GGP is just too big to fail. Yesterday I ran across this blurb in a post on a blog called Credit Equity Correlation (sounds exciting doesn’t it?) written by a Wall Street guy named Jim Delaney.

“General Growth Properties could stand as the poster child for the current commercial real estate environment as although they have stopped paying debt service on two of their key properties the lenders have not forced GGP into bankruptcy as they believe there is more to be gained by riding out the storm with a company whose tenants are happy with the way the Malls where they lease are maintained.”

I think that speaks well for the employees of the battered developer who are steering the ship through this storm. As long as they can retain good people they have a fighting chance to pull through this.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Scene This Week In…

The overarching theme of this installment of Scene This Week In... is “well not exactly.”

As previously noted here, as soon as the snow melts Mama Wordbones is itching to get outside and plant stuff and, since building our home three years ago, we’ve planted a lot of stuff. This has pretty much been a lifestyle change for me. Up to this point, the landscaping of the homes I’ve lived in required minimal to no interference on my part to look passable for the HOA. Mama Wordbones lived in the country. She tended 3 acres of lawn and gardens. Her lawn equipment shed had a roll top door, a concrete floor, electricity and running water. I’ve lived in places that were smaller.

Anyway, in our household, I am basically the garden assistant, you know, get some rocks, bring around another bag of mulch, dig a hole right here, no not there, here, and so on. Yet I try to be observant and one of the things I’ve noticed is that if you want anything to live outside through the summer you need to get it into the ground as soon as the prospect of another frost has passed. This means an early visit to garden centers, before they are all full of the colors you normally associate with a garden center in the spring. The plants out on display early in the season are the hearty ones, the ones who don’t mind being planted before the grass turns green.

This past weekend, on a dreary rainy Sunday, I spotted an island of color in a far corner of the yard at the River Hill Garden Center. Upon closer inspection I came upon this handsome quartet. I told Mama Wordbones that I briefly considered getting one but the thought of breaking up this group was too much to bear.And the not exactly angle?

River Hill Garden Center is not exactly in Columbia, it’s in Clarksville.

The first time I saw this line up of clocks it took me awhile to realize that the time goes slowly backward from Columbia to Catonsville. This interpretation of local time is not exactly found in Ellicott City. It’s in the Old Mill Bakery and Café on Frederick Road in Oella, just across the bridge from the old town.

No Recession Here

Yesterday I stopped by the Apple store in the The Mall to pick up some software for Peanuts iMac. I thought that 3:00 PM on a Wednesday afternoon was a good time to catch the store in a non busy mode.

I thought incorrectly. It was busy. I asked a manager if this was unusual.

“Actually this isn’t bad,” he told me, “normally we’re busier than this.”

“At this time of day, in the middle of week?”


Even without the recession, any retailer would be happy to have this kind of traffic at anytime, let alone the middle of the day in the middle of the week.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

idX Moving to Columbia

In what will likely end up one of the largest industrial lease transactions in Maryland this year, idX has signed a lease for 434,490 square feet at 8901 Snowden River Parkway in the Gateway Commerce Center. This lease will fill 45% of the almost one million square foot industrial building, built in 1971, that once housed an appliance manufacturing facility for GE. More recently the space was occupied by GTX Logistics who vacated the property last summer.

idX is moving from its existing facilities in Odenton.

RREEF funds purchased this building in 2007 knowing that GTX would be vacating. At that time there was speculation that this would be a redevelopment play and that the property would be repositioned for retail and office. The covenants on the land, however, prohibit any use besides industrial until the year 2020.

Interestingly enough, the idX lease is for ten years.

Email Campaign Nets Ethics Complaint

According to this story by Derek Simmonsen in the Columbia Flier, an ethics complaint has been filed against Liz Bobo for using her state office and email account to influence Columbia elections. The complaint stems from last years village elections in Wilde Lake. During that election Liz used her state delegate email account to politic on behalf of Phil Kirsch who was running for reelection to the Columbia Council against Linda Odum. Phil’s win in that election was largely credited to the assistance he received from Liz.

Liz used the same tactics in the 2007 village elections when fellow blogger Bill Santos attempted to unseat Kirsch.

Predictably, Liz claims she didn’t know she was doing anything wrong.