Howard County Maryland Blog

Local Politics and Current Events

Something Rotten in Denmark (Howard County)

Posted by pzguru on Monday, March 31, 2008

Well, it’s a been while since I last posted on this blog.  But something that happened about 2 months ago caught my eye, and then a related event happened just last week, and I decided I could not sit by and not comment on these events any longer. 

 The first event was the article I read about in the Howard County Times, on February 12, 2008, written by Nate Sandstrom.  The article was titled “Executive Proposes to Renovate County Offices”.   Granted, the title itself does not really divulge a much more interesting plot that one only is aware of if one reads the entire article.  Now, I know some people like my self glance headlines and decide what articles to read.  If I had stuck to my normal routine I would have passed this one by.  But something made me read it, and I’m glad I did, for what I read thoroughly bothered me.   Not that I enjoy being bothered, but I truly believe a well informed society makes for a better society.  And, sometimes, hearing about improper activities or improper behavior sparks enough outrage in the citizenry to take action against the perpetrators.  

The latter part of the article talks about a site development plan for the Oakland Mills Village Center.  Great – a plan to reinvigorate and redevelop an ailing village center.   What could be bad about that?  Only this.   It turns out that the developer, Metroventures/USA, Inc., based out of Baltimore, Maryland, was given approval by the Planning Board to count public, ON-STREET parking as part of their required parking. 

Why is that bothersome, you may ask?  Well, let me explain.  In Section 133 of the Howard County Zoning Regulations, there are requirements for how many parking spaces are required for various “uses”, such as retail, office, gas stations, movie theaters, and so on.  In the first set of subsections, the Regulations clearly state that only OFF-STREET parking may be counted toward the required parking. 

The Planning Board has NO AUTHORITY whatsoever to approve on-street parking for a private use.  Not ever. 

What’s really bothersome about this, is that the article by Mr. Sandstrom goes on to quote Ms. Kimberly Flowers, the DPZ Ombudswoman, in response to why this was approved:  “such approvals are not unique”.    Hmmm.   I wish Ms. Flowers would elaborate on what plans she’s talking about.  This is the ombudswoman who was brought on by County Executive Ken Ulman to restore public trust in the development process, to provide transparency to the process, to bring back legitimacy to the process.  Oh really.  It sounds like Ms. Flowers is nothing more than a political puppet of Mr. Ulman’s, making lame excuses in a sorry attempt to justify her boss’s inappropriate conduct by saying “it’s been done before”.  How pathetic.

 Now, to be clear, I don’t think that DPZ is to blame for this plan being approved.  I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Ken Ulman and the Planning Board.  After all, the Planning Board is appointed by Ken Ulman, and the Chairperson is a neighborhood friend, political contributor to Ulman, and a political ally of his who has had a tendancy to deviate from standard Planning Board procedures in the past, either on her own or at the direction of political superiors.   And, Metroventures USA is also a heavy contributor to Ken Ulman – some $5000 between 6/15/2006 and 4/30/2007, according to the UMBC Campaign Finanace Database.   But, I’m sure there’s no quid prop quo going on here. 

But wait, I’m leaving out the other half of this bothersome fiasco.   The speech that Mr. Ulman just gave about proposing new zoning laws to help revitalize the town centers throughout Columbia (although since he can’t seem to follow current laws I don’t see the point in proposing new laws).  Here’s the part that really gets me. 

“WHETHER IT IS THROUGH TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE AND GUIDANCE FROM STAFF IN THEDEPARTMENT OF PLANNING AND ZONING, INVESTMENTS IN NEEDED INFRASTRUCTUREIMPROVEMENTS, PROACTIVE COMMUNITY POLICING, AS THE FACILITATOR BRINGINGALL PARTIES TO THE TABLE TO WORK TOGETHER TOWARD SOLUTIONS, OR BYINVESTING DIRECTLY IN VILLAGE CENTERS WHEN OPPORTUNITIES ARISE, WE ARE

COMMITTED TO MAKING VILLAGE CENTER REVITALIZATION SUCCESSFUL.

 This brings up the part about Ken Ulman taking it upon himself, without County Council approval, to buy 15,000 square feet of this office building, for $4 million, or roughly $267.00 per square foot.   I know enough about real estate to know that that amount is over the going rate for office space.  So, is this an investment to benefit the citiznes of Howard County (by overpaying for unneeded office space that isn’t even tied into the County offices) or is it about giving a political payoff to big campaign contributor?

If Ulman is all about investing in opportunities, shouldn’t he be ponying up $4 million (or some equitable percentage) for EVERY office/retail project in the County?  Shouldn’t ALL developers be allowed to count on-street parking in their site plans, and thereby significantly increase the size of their buildings?   If I were other developers, I would certainly be wondering those questions.

If there’s one thing Ken Ulman should understand as a lawyer, and the same goes for Ms. Flowers and the Planning Board Members, the government is supposed to apply the law equally to EVERYBODY.  A government that is arbitrary and capricious, can not govern and can not be trusted.   Shame on all of them for creating the stench that eminates from the third floor of the County Office Building.  Maybe the citizens of Howard County, all of those that are disgruntled by this kind of behavior, like the newly formed Howard County Land Use Coalition, will start really calling these officials to task for their misdeeds.  Then, maybe there will be true change in the process, and integrity and honesty can be restored to the process.  One thing is for sure though, as long as certain current officials are in their posts, the garbage will continue to mount. 

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5 Responses to “Something Rotten in Denmark (Howard County)”

  1. wordbones said

    pzguru,

    While I tend to agree that the county investment in this buildng is ill advised I should point out that the per square foot rate that they are paying is not that out of line with the market. It is probably too high for a “B” office location such as Oakland Mills but not outrageously so.

    My main objection to this project is the size. Metroventures is proposing a 60,000 square foot building in an that has always struggled to atract office tenants. This building would be twice the size of the Columbia Association building in Town Center. It will take at least two years to sell or lease the rest of the space. That is a long time to carry a project.

    Will the county feel compelled to bail out Metroventures when it fails to attract other tenants?

    -wb

  2. pzguru said

    Wordbones,

    That’s a very good point about the size (I hadn’t really thought of it from that angle) and a very good question (about the bail out).

    I would have to assume that it’s possible given what we’ve already seen happen so far. Personally, I am not a fan of government “bailing out” companies and so on for the simple reason that if the government does so for one company, it should do so for ALL companies, regardless of how many employees they have. Why should only the big corporations have a safety net?

  3. Bud Fox said

    You called it right about the relationship of the zoning board, county planning staff, and the county administrator.

    Nothing wrong with a new building in Columbia. However, why does the county need more space? Have the been hiring a lot of office workers?

  4. observer said

    The other fact regarding this case which has been quietly swept under the rugs is the fact that the developer also intentionally labelled a sizable portion of the office space as storage only on the plans that were approved by the county. Simultaneously he had the same space listed on his web site as for lease. This was dleiberately done to avoid further parking space requirements. I wonder how the residents of that community are going to feel if suddenly there are cars parked up and down both sides of their residential streets from now until forever becuase of the poor decisions DPZ is making. Great for pedestrian safety I might add. I hope they all feel “revitalized” when they feel this is going to be a big problem for them. Also, I ‘d like to know where the line forms for this kind of favoritism. If everyone is going to get rich quick by violating the zoning laws of Howard County, I would like to throw my real estate in for some fancy rezoning, so that I can increase my land value ten fold. I wish I owned the Wilde Lake Village Center right now. The proposed changes there could net Kimco in the hundreds of millions.

  5. […] and a cute Free Hugs campaign video taken outside the Mall. Such things let us know that all is not rotten in Howard County, as one blogger thinks it just might […]

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