Over at Columbia Compass Bill Santos has written a great post that brought into focus some of my thoughts around the proposed Inner Arbor project for Symphony Woods. I really like what I’ve heard and seen of the project and I hope it comes to fruition. But. . . I live in Ellicott City, not in Columbia, and when Ian Kennedy asked people to sign a petition in support of the project I was at first hesitant to do so. After all, I’m not a Columbia property owner, I don’t vote for the Columbia Association board of directors, and whatever money CA chooses to spend in support of the Inner Arbor project is not going to come out of my pocket. Should I just stay out of the controversy and leave Columbia-related matters to the “real Columbians”?

In the end I signed the petition (with the encouragement of Tom Coale), but I still had some residual concerns about doing so. However Bill’s post has dispelled all of those. In particular he demolishes the argument of two Columbia residents that CA is nothing more than a homeowners association and as such has “no business serving others with our monies” by “[putting] CA’s residents’ property (i.e. Symphony Woods) . . . to the regular service of patrons spanning a widespread geographic area, not just Columbians.” As Bill points out, CA is a tax-exempt organization whose exemption from taxation is specifically conditioned on its “promoting in some way the common good and general welfare of the people of the community” and making its “common areas or facilities” available “for the use and enjoyment of the general public.”

In other words, Columbia is not and cannot be the equivalent of a gated community operated for the sole benefit of Columbia lien payers. To put it bluntly, Columbians have no business telling me that the decisions of CA are none of my business. As a taxpayer I’m in my own small way having to make up for the lost tax revenues due to CA’s tax-exempt status—and of course I’ll also be helping to pay for any county-funded amenities (like a new library) that might be built to supplement the CA-funded Inner Arbor facilities.

Beyond the legalities, I can’t understand why right-thinking Columbians would want to put up a metaphorical wall around Columbia and Symphony Woods. Even leaving aside the original Columbia vision of diversity and inclusivity, the health and well-being of Columbia as a community, not to mention the value of Columbians’ properties, are ultimately dependent on the ability of Columbia to attract the custom and patronage not just of Columbians, but of residents of the rest of Howard County and central Maryland in general.

As I’ve written before, Symphony Woods is not a remote wilderness to be preserved in a pristine state of nature with minimal human presence, it is a park—and as Columbia’s downtown evolves, it will be very much an urban park—whose continued existence ultimately depends on the benefits it provides to members of the community within which it is situated. Declaring it off-limits to compatible uses like an arts district is a recipe for its long-term decline into irrelevance. As Symphony Woods is to Columbia, so is Columbia to the rest of Howard County. If Columbia can’t evolve to meet the challenges of a new time—or more correctly, if Columbians are unwilling to let it thus evolve—then that’s a recipe for Columbia’s own long-term decline into irrelevance. And as Bill points out, that’s a violation not only of the spirit of Columbia but also of the letter of the law under which Columbia and CA are organized.

Tom Coale - 2013-02-13 13:01

Glad you signed the petition, Frank. The exclusionary insular mindset is the vocal minority. I think most Columbians think a lot more along the lines of what Bill has said.